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Sentence level writing

In academic writing, every sentence you write must be grammatically complete. A grammatically complete sentence consists of a complete thought, and makes sense on its own. It consists of a:

  • subject (i.e. a noun phrase, which can be a single word or group of words) tells you who or what the sentence is about
  • verb (i.e. a verb phrase, which can be a single word or group of words) tells you about the subject
  • complement (a group of words) provides more information about the verb - if required

Example of a complete sentence and its elements:

  • The result of the study confirmed the writer’s hypothesis.
  • subject - The result of the study
  • verb - confirmed
  • complement - the writer’s hypothesis.

The sentence above is a simple sentence, in that it consists of only one clause (i.e. any group of words that contains a subject and a verb, which may or may not be a complete sentence)

Many sentences consist of more than one clause; they may contain two or more independent clauses (i.e. clauses that contain the essential information and make sense on their own), or a combination of independent and dependent clauses (i.e. clauses that do not contain essential information, and depend on the main clause to express a complete thought).
Examples:

  • Although the result of the study was inconclusive, the committee decided to implement the policy.
  • dependent clause - Although the result of the study was inconclusive,
  • independent clause - the committee decided to implement the policy.
  • If the result of the study confirmed the writer’s hypothesis, it would be a major breakthrough in the world of biochemistry.
  • dependent clause - If the result of the study confirmed the writer’s hypothesis,
  • independent clause - it would be a major breakthrough in the world of biochemistry.

A sentence is incomplete if it does not express a complete thought, even if it contains a subject and a verb (see the dependent clauses above). It is known as a sentence fragment

In summary, a complete sentence has a subject, a verb, and expresses a complete thought. It begins with a capital letter, and ends with an appropriate punctuation mark (i.e. full stop, question mark or exclamation mark)

Active and passive sentences

In an active sentence, the subject is the performer of the action.

In a passive sentence, the subject is the receiver of the action.

Example of an active sentence and its passive construction:

  • active - The university conducted the study in 2008.
  • passive - The study was conducted by the university in 2008.

English sentences are usually constructed in the active voice; it has the advantage of being clear and direct.

When you want to write less directly, use the passive voice. Using the passive voice also allows you to:

  • direct the audience to focus on the information or argument being presented, and not on the writer or speaker
  • omit any mention of the actor or agent where it is unimportant or unknown
  • place certain material at the end of the clause so that it may receive the emphasis of final position

Find out about some common errors in sentence structure.

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Academic writing: sentence level (PDF 188kB)

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