March 19, 2018

The Last Word: Sense and Syntax

A sentence that communicates a complex thought may need to be lengthy. Is this a problem? It doesn’t have to be: “Syntax solves this problem by having adjacent strings of words stand for related sets of concepts and by inserting one string inside another to stand for concepts that are parts of bigger concepts.” Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style 81 (2014). In other words, the writer must break up the clauses within the sentence so that the reader can digest each clause and relate it to the overall thought.

My sixth-grade teacher was right: diagramming the sentence—at least in the writer’s head—permits the writer to identify the clauses and their relationships to one another. Once the writer has identified each clause and the word it modifies, the writer can make the sentence easy to understand by using parallel construction and correlative conjunctions. Let’s look at the effective use of these syntactic tools.

Parallel Construction

Strunk and White explain that when a writer uses parallel construction, “[t]he likeness of form enables the reader to recognize more readily the likeness of content and function.” William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 26 (4th ed. 2000). This can be accomplished by similar phrasing: “Licensee will not disclose Cat Trainer’s methods, republish Trainer’s materials, or disparage Trainer’s cat training methods by pointing out to third parties that cats can’t be trained.” In this example, the writer shows the connection between the phrases by using the same verb voice, tense, and mood. Using different verb forms disconnects the phrases and makes the sentence hard to understand (not to mention grammatically incorrect). Compare, “Formerly, cat training was seldom attempted, but now Trainer’s method is used by many” with the parallel nouns, “Formerly, cat training was seldom attempted; now it is practiced by many using Trainer’s methods.” See id. at 26.

Introducing each clause with the same preposition makes a long sentence more understandable: “Licensee will not disparage Trainer’s methods by laughing at the concept that cats will cooperate, by telling third persons that cats are oblivious, or by suggesting that cat owners buy a dog to really train the cat.” In this example, the preposition must be either repeated before all the clauses in the series (as they are in the example) or stated only once, before the first clause (“or by laughing . . . , telling . . . , or suggesting . . .”). Prof. Garner indicates that the sentence will be more emphatic if the writer repeats the preposition before each phrase, and it will certainly be clearer to repeat the preposition if the clauses are long. Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage 637 (2d ed. 1995).

Correlative Conjunctions

Correlative conjunctions are among the best tools for telling a reader the context and relationship between clauses. Correlative conjunctions include:


  • Neither . . . nor: “Cat Trainer neither warrants that her methods will result in a change in cat behavior nor accepts liability for resulting scratches or bites.”
  • Either . . . or: “If after 90 days the cat remains untrained, Licensee may either return the training materials and seek a refund or keep the materials and continue to try to convince the cat to pay attention.”
  • Not only . . . but also: “Licensee not only must use diligence and patience in training the cat but also must suspend Licensee’s belief that the cat will revert to its old behavior when Licensee’s back is turned.”


See Garner, supra, at 227; Strunk & White, supra, at 27.

Like other parallel clauses, clauses joined by these correlative conjunctions must have identical grammatical construction. See Strunk & White, supra, at 27. Correct examples: “Either the cat must be exceptionally eager to please or it must be bribed” or “The cat must be either exceptionally easy to please or bribed.” Incorrect example: “Either the cat must be exceptionally eager to please or bribed.”

Numbers, Letters, or Bullets Can Separate Clauses

In an agreement, clarity is more important than style. Numbers, letters, and bullets do not produce an elegant sentence, but they do clearly show the reader that each of the numbered or other listed clauses (1) is part of the same string and (2) modifies the same introductory word or phrase. For example, “Licensee will indemnify Cat Trainer for all (a) damages suffered by Cat Trainer by reason of Licensee’s breaches, and (b) claims made by Licensee’s family members arising from (i) retaliatory actions by the cat, or (ii) Licensee’s aggravation.” As always, the drafter must assure that the each of the numbered clauses is parallel to each of the others.

Unlike cats, writers can be trained—and, more importantly, they can train themselves. To herd these finicky clauses, the writer must consciously determine which ones modify which words or phrases, then link them together using parallel sentence construction and organizational aids like numbering to show the reader their relationship to each other and to the overall concept.