Real World Sentences

This exercise, a winner of the 2006 Style Pedagogy Contest, was contributed by Meg Gardiner.

Cohesion and Coherence
Identify/Generate the principle
Time: 25 minutes

This exercise asks students to revise real world sentences that illustrate decisions writers make about vocabulary, rhythm, characters and actions, and wordiness. You can add other problem categories that you observe in your students’ writing. Some of these choices involve rhetorical trade-offs, which can lead to class discussions about why style choices matter.

A good follow-up for this exercise is a scavenger hunt in which students search for problem sentences. For one version of such a hunt, ask students to find examples of poor verbal style around Grounds. You can also follow up by asking students to identify and revise clunky sentences in papers during workshops.

This exercise can be done in small groups or as a class. You can pass out the sentences as a handout or project them on an overhead or computer. Here is one set of sample real world sentences for each category, with explanations:

Sample sentences as a Microsoft Word handout.


I like to give my students real-world examples of clunky sentences to revise. I usually excerpt one sentence from each student’s paper and have them revise in groups. Before that assignment, we practice a few sentences together as a class. Here are some sample sentences I’ve culled over the years from books, speeches, TV programs, monuments, and waiting rooms:

Lexical Choice

1. “The use of chemotherapy, especially the antibiotics, has contributed to an ever decreasing number of fatalities in infectious diseases.” On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

I usually start with this sentence on the board. It’s wordy, the vocabulary is needlessly inflated and sometimes misleading, her choice of prepositions is weird, and the verb is weak. We start with the verb. “Has contributed to an ever decreasing number of” can be replaced by “minimized.” It’s active and concise. Next I ask my students what they think she means by “chemotherapy.” Inevitably they assume she’s talking about cancer treatment, but I point out that we don’t treat cancer with antibiotics and most cancers aren’t infectious. We conclude that chemotherapy is just a fancy (and misleading) word for drugs. We replace “fatalities” with “deaths” for similar reasons. We tweak the prepositions and omit needless articles and get the following revision, which you don’t have to read twice to understand: “The use of drugs, especially antibiotics, has minimized the number of deaths from infectious disease.”

Rhythmic Variations

2. “The young can sometimes be wiser than us.” Queen Elizabeth II

3. “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Star Trek

Here are two examples where correcting a grammar problem leaves a sentence sounding worse than before. In the example from the queen’s English, the objective case “us” sounds less pretentious to the modern ear than the (correct) nominative case “we,” although we can easily fix both problems: “The young can be wiser than we are.” The trekkie example is a harder case. You can fix the split infinitive (“To go boldly”), but that ruins the rhythm and the music of the long o’s. Some will also insist on changing “man” to “person” for gender inclusiveness. (“One” is better, but even that mars the rhythm somewhat.) Once I had a student who wanted to move “before” because she thought it was a preposition rather than an adverb, and she had been taught never to end a sentence with a preposition. (Churchill’s witty rejoinder to that rule: “That is a criticism up with which I will not put.”) I let them revise all the problems and ask them how it sounds: “To go boldly where no person has before gone.” Awful. Style is about the music of a sentence as well as grammar. These sentences are about making trade-offs between grammar and sound. If you’re a stickler for grammatical rules, you may want to skip them. It’s also a good opportunity to talk about style and audience. What readers are likely to care more about grammatical correctness or gender inclusiveness than a smoothly flowing rhythm?

4. “We must go to the moon, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” -JFK

This is another sentence about trade-offs. This is from a speech, and though “do the other things” is pretty vague, it can be justified because it balances the phrase with the antithesis to follow. I don’t think President Kennedy would have written it down that way.

Characters and Actions 5. “Men and nature must work hand in hand. The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men.” -Roosevelt

This howler is actually carved in stone at the FDR memorial in DC. Some day I’m going there with a red pen. The subject of the second sentence throws the whole quote out of balance. I ask students to revise this one on their own to make the quote gender- inclusive and to incorporate the lessons of style (old-to-new information flow, characters-as-subjects, actions-as-verbs.) You should end up with something like this: “We must work hand in hand with nature. If we throw nature out of balance, we throw our lives out of balance.”

6. “Your flight might possibly be overbooked. Volunteers who are willing to accept alternate transportation against monetary compensation are kindly advised to contact the check-in representative.” ­sign at the Lafayette, Louisiana regional airport

Out of sympathy for tired and harried travelers, I ask students to eliminate redundancy, wordiness, and inflated vocabulary, as well choose characters for subjects, actions for verbs, and adhere to old to new information flow. My general point, as in the first sentence in this exercise, is that a sentence doesn’t have to be unreadable to convey intelligence or authority. Of course, in the real world an airline would never cop to being the agent of action in the first sentence: “We may have overbooked your flight. If you are willing to take another flight in exchange for money, please contact the check-in representative.”

Too Many Words

7. “Students who have prescriptions may choose to have their prescriptions filled here at Student Health or may choose to take them to a community pharmacy.” -sign at the pharmacy at Elson Student Health Clinic

This sign-maker must have gotten paid by the word. If you assign your students to find examples of poor verbal style around Grounds, suggest that the hospital and health centers are great fodder. I ask my students to revise this sentence to eliminate redundancy. You can even play a Name-That-Tune game with this one and the following sentence, and give prizes to the revision that best captures the meaning of the sentence in the fewest words: “Students may fill prescriptions here or at a community pharmacy.”