Article Archive


Paragraph Structure,
Part Four: Sentence Variety—Phrases

by Nann Dunne

Phrases are groups of related words that don’t include a subject and verb; for example, to the store, at a fast pace, our favorite teacher, an enclosure attached, fearing reprisal, and dedicated to learning. At the end of this article, I include the URL of a site that explains the different types of phrases and their formation.

Of special importance to authors who are trying to improve their craft are the two editing aspects addressed here: (1) eliminating wordiness in phrases, and (2) proper positioning of a phrase in a sentence.

Eliminating Wordiness

We’ve become used to hearing and speaking wordy phrases. As authors, however, we need to make ourselves aware of this wordiness and fight to edit it out of our writing. Just as the guiding words in real estate are location, location, location, in writing they are revision, revision, revision. And editing goes hand-in-hand with revision.

When you’re ready to edit your writing, choose a portion—whether it be a scene or a chapter or several of each—and highlight every phrase. Now go back through and examine each one. Is the phrase absolutely necessary to the sense of the sentence? Can you remove or combine some of the words and still keep that sense? Can revision do a stronger job by turning the phrase into one or two adjectives? Is it redundant? Is it cliché?

Let me illustrate. Questionable phrases are italicized.

  1. Bill stepped up to the tee and drove the ball all the way down the fairway and onto the green.

    The three phrases make this sentence too wordy. A more concise sentence would be:
    Bill drove his tee shot all the way to the green. (I left in "all the way" for emphasis. These decisions must be made case by case.)

    Or: Bill’s incredible tee shot landed on the green.

    We’ve tightened 20 words to 8 by cutting unnecessary phrases and rewording the sentence.

  2. Despite the fact that Betty hated shopping, Shirley dragged her along.

    This is one of a large group of phrases, all containing "the fact that," or similar wording, which should nearly always be deleted. Revision can take several versions:

    Although Betty hated shopping, Shirley dragged her along.
    Despite Betty’s hatred of shopping, Shirley dragged her along.
    Betty hated shopping, but Shirley dragged her along.

    We’ve tightened 11 words to 8 by deleting the unnecessary "the fact that."

  3. Judy was intent on following her prey. Without conscious thought, she elbowed past the man blocking her way.

    The second phrase has two problems. "Without conscious thought" has become a cliché, and it’s not necessary to the sense of the sentence. The author produces a stronger choice by combining sentences:
    Intent on following her prey, Judy elbowed past the man blocking her way.

    Now take a look at "Intent on following her prey." Assuming the author previously informed the reader that Judy is following someone—her prey—"following" could be deleted as redundant. A better rendering of the sentence, therefore, would be:
    Intent on her prey, Judy elbowed past the man blocking her way.

    We’ve tightened 18 words to 12, deleted a redundancy, and avoided a cliché. And we’ve left the editor without any complaints—always a notable achievement.

Proper positioning of a phrase in a sentence

Too often, misplacement of a phrase can befuddle or even misdirect a reader. The examples that follow will illustrate the importance of careful crafting of sentences by the author.

Notice how poorly structured these sentences are. The relevant noun is underlined; the phrase is italicized.

  1. Swimming in the bright sunlight, my eyes burned and watered.

    This is the classic dangling participle (swimming). The sentence says "my eyes" were swimming. Revise for clarity:
    Swimming in the bright sunlight made my eyes burn and water.

  2. Joe walked to the store with a wagon.
    Joe pulled a wagon to the store.
  3. She put the dog in the car that was barking.
    She put the barking dog in the car.
  4. The house had yellow shutters on the corner of Elm Street.
    The house on the corner of Elm Street had yellow shutters.
  5. Though only three, Mary’s father took her to the circus.

    At a glance, this might look all right. But "father" is the noun to which the phrase applies, so the sentence says he is only three. Rewrite:
    Though Mary was only three, her father took her to the circus.

Also keep in mind the reverse possibility of improving sentences by USING phrases rather than wordy clauses.

The proper use of phrases is a vast area that is barely touched on here, but the serious writer will pursue the subject on her own. A book with extensive examples is The Dictionary of Concise Writing – 10,000 Alternatives to Wordy Phrases by Robert Hartwell Fiske. This really is written in dictionary style, and while I'll never get through it all, it's great to skim occasionally, or to look up pesky phrases for better wording.

A shorter book is Edit Yourself, A Manual for Everyone Who Works With Words, by Bruce Ross-Larson. It has a 64-page section on "What Editors Cut, Change, and Compare" that shows numerous phrase patterns and redundant word combinations to avoid, and is a good starter book.

Here's the URL for "The Garden of Phrases," a very informative web site about types of phrases and their formation.
© 2004, Nann Dunne
Excerpted from Nann Dunne's Fiction-Editing Handbook
(a work in progress)

Back to Article Archive.