Do you long to write sentences that are easy to understand and flow smoothly like a river? Your scientific texts don’t need to feel choppy and your readers don’t need to struggle. Using the appropriate sentence structure helps you convey your message clearly & effectively, even when you write about a highly complex topic.
4 rules for effective sentence structure
Well-structured sentences are crucial in scientific writing. Together with well-structured paragraphs, they are a key to comprehensive and captivating texts. There is no magic to it — just follow a few simple rules and you will be amazed by the result:
- One thought per sentence Don’t overload your sentences for the sake of brevity. When a sentence is too complex, the reader has to work hard to discern its meaning. For example, let’s consider this 1st sentence from a Discussion section (source):
We have presented a model of AZM [active zone material] mediated SV [synaptic vesicle] docking and priming proposing that the SV docking and priming at resting active zones are regulated by random shortening and lengthening of AZM macromolecules, which directly link SVs to the plasma membrane at active zones.
Until you finish reading the sentence, you have already forgotten what was said at the beginning. Splitting the sentence in two makes the message easier to grasp:
We have presented a model of SV [synaptic vesicle] docking and priming mediated by AZM [active zone material]. We propose that the SV docking and priming at resting active zones are regulated by random shortening and lengthening of AZM macromolecules, which directly link SVs to the plasma membrane at active zones.
- “Old information” at the beginning of the sentence (topic position) The first few words of a sentence act as a context that we use to interpret the rest of the sentence. Therefore, don’t include anything new (that you mention for the first time) or unknown at the beginning of the sentence: the reader would have to keep this new info in their mind and wait until they get more information to make sense of the new stuff. This is exhausting and frustrating. Moreover, including “old” information at the beginning of the sentence creates a natural connection to the preceding text, thus contributing to the feeling of flow as we read.
- “New information” at the end of the sentence (stress position) What comes at the end of the sentence is naturally emphasized — it sticks most in our memory. So after you have given the context at the beginning of the sentence, present new information at the end of the sentence.
- Person or thing whose “story” the sentence is telling in the topic position The most relevant context for a sentence is its topic — that’s why the beginning of a sentence is called topic position. This together with the previous points means that you should first introduce a new concept at the end of the sentence and link it to something known (“old info”), before you place this concept at the beginning of the sentence and give more details about it.
From sentence structure to text flow
This knowledge about topic position & stress position of a sentence allows us to construct sentences that flow smoothly one after another. Even in the Introduction of a research article, where one needs to move quickly from topic to topic, an appropriate sentence structure creates a pleasant reader experience (topic position — stress position are marked):
An important strategy to increase agricultural production is to improve soil fertility. In many agricultural soils, a major limiting factor for plant growth is phosphorus. Phosphorus is involved in essential metabolic pathways including photosynthesis, biological oxidation, nutrient uptake, energy transfer and cell division. It is also a contributing factor promoting early root growth, increasing water-use efficiency, and enhancing resistance to plant diseases as well as the quality of crops. However, a large proportion of the total phosphorus in the soil is insoluble and, thus, unavailable for plant uptake.
Fixing incomprehensible sentences
These ideas about sentence structure not only allow us to create a nice flow between the sentences, they also help us fix sentences that “do not work”. Let’s try it together with the following example, which is a first sentence of an Abstract (source):
By priming brain circuits, associations between low-salience stimuli often guide future behavioral choices through a process known as mediated or inferred learning.
Since this is the very first sentence of an article, there is no “old” information that has been previously introduced. Instead, we need to begin the sentence with something that is otherwise familiar to the reader. I think you agree that “by priming brain circuits” does not fulfill this role well. But “future behavioral choices” is quite general, and appears to be relevant for the sentence. Concerning the stress position, “mediated or inferred learning” seems to be appropriate. Indeed, the whole sentence is a definition of this term — so we can keep it at the end of the sentence. Now that we have the beginning & end of the sentence, we can try to order the rest in a logical way:
Future behavioral choices are often guided by associations between low-salience stimuli that prime brain circuits in a process known as mediated or inferred learning.
Even when you don’t know what “low-salience stimuli” mean, I hope you agree that the second version looks much more accessible.
Alright, let’s consider another example — a sentence from conference instructions:
If you have a regular talk (25 min), lightning talk (5 min) or workshop (3.5 hours) idea, we will be very happy to hear about it.
This sentence does not convey rocket science, yet reading it feels mildly inconvenient. What’s the reason? The position of the word “idea” is not optimal: we first get all the details about talks & workshops, and only then we learn that it’s about talk & workshop *ideas*. The fix in this case is simple: put the word “idea” before the details:
If you have an idea for a regular talk (25 min), lightning talk (5 min) or workshop (3.5 hours), we will be very happy to hear about it.
Now let’s practice our new sentence structure skills. Here are a few sentences that can be substantially improved by considering the old & new info and the sentence topic & stress position:
- First sentence from an Abstract (source):
As one of the most unique properties of nerve cells, their intrinsic excitability allows them to transform synaptic inputs into action potentials.
- First sentence from a Discussion (source):
The model-free approaches to control of neural systems presented here suggest that deep reinforcement learning has potential for application to this area.
- Do you have a sentence that does not work and you are struggling to improve it? Share it in the comments, so we can help you & practice at the same time!
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