Line by Line Editing: Part Three: Balanced Sentences

Author: Anastasia V. Pergakis // Category:

Anyone who has taken a math class knows that one side of the equation has to equal the other. (Okay math genius' - don't get technical on the less than, greater than stuff! You know what I mean!) a + b = c

Oh? Did I just get a few of you to quit reading? Why is this important to writing you ask? Well, sentences are the same way! They need to balance on both sides of the sentence. Verb tense, noun association, etc - all need to match. Instead of the equal (=) sign, in a sentence we have words like "and", "but", "neither...nor", "either...or", etc.

More often than not, balanced structure comes naturally to us. Men are "tall, dark, and handsome" or Ceasar's "I came, I saw, I conquered". You don't need to know the technicalities of English grammar to know when a sentence sounds off or "unbalanced" like "We are told to live our own lives and that we should not interfere with how others behave." A professional editor would be able to point out at the infinitive phrase and the "that" clause make the sentence unbalanced. Do you need to know that exactly? No, but you can still read it and tell it's wrong.

Pairing and Series
Things linked as compound subjects, verbs, objects, and modifiers have to be the same grammatical form. In other words, they need to match. While editing, if you find that they don't, you can easily fix it by making them match or changing the sentence structure entirely to be rid of the need for parallelism in the sentence.

Examples: (from page 56 of "Line by Line: How to Improve your own Writing")
Wrong: The proposed transmission line is ugly, unsafe, and an environmental danger.
Right: The proposed transmission line is ugly, unsafe, and hazardous to the environment.
(The objects need to match in tense. They need to be logically similar.)

Wrong: The process is slow, prone to politics, and robs all concerned of direct responsibility.
Right: The process is slow and prone to politics, robbing all concerned of direct responsibility.
(Make sure the verbs match! You may need to rearrange the series to make it work correctly.)

Wrong: The applicants were all college graduates, of similar socioeconoic background, and interested in business careers.
Right: The applicants were all college-educated, similar in socioeconomic background, and interested in business careers.
(Sometimes you need to change the number and take out prepositions.)

Wrong: Your cover letter should include information about your present employment and why you want to change jobs.
Right: Your cover letter should include information about your present employment and explain why you want to change jobs.
(Sometimes you need to add another verb to balance the sentence).

Correlative Conjunctions
Did I just lose you again? Don't worry, I'll explain. Correlative conjuntions are: either...or, neither...nor, both...and, not only...but also, not just...but also, not simply...but also, not merely... but also. "But" can also be included here if what falls after it intesifies rather than supplements.

These conjunctions need to be used correctly or the reader may be lost or confused. Read over correlative conjunctions to check what they introduce and correct any mistakes.

Wrong: I not only sent a copy to my supervisor but also to the head of the division.
Right: I sent a copy not only to my supervisor but also to the head of the division. (Page 59, Line by Line)
(In the first sentence, "not only" does not introduce the subject "I". This can be confusing to a reader and so it needs to be fixed to introduce the correct object, "copy")

Wrong: In pointing out the dangers of nictotine, the surgeon general is not only referring to smoking cigarettes but also chewing tobacco. (Page 60, Line by Line)
(So, the surgeon general was chewing tobacco when he made the statment?)
Right: In pointing out the dangers of nicotine, the surgeon general is referring not only to smoking cigarettes but also to chewing tobacco. (Page 60, Line by Line)
(Since "referring" and "chewing" are not the two verbs that need to relate to the general, but "smoking" and "chewing" to tobacco, "not only" needs to be in the correct place.)

Don't over use correlative conjunctions! If a simple "and" or "but" will do, then use it.

Wrong: I have the figures for both the first quarter and the second. (Page 61, Line by Line)
Right: I have the figures for the first and second quarter.

Poets can get away with pairing odd things in a sentence - like Lewis Carroll with kings and cabbages. As novel and story writers, unless in dialogue, this can make for a confusing read. The sentence needs to be clear.

Wrong: The police found no alcohol in his bloodstream but a loaded gun in his car. (Page 67 Line by Line)

Fixing the Problem
I was not sure how to sum up this section. There are so many more examples and ways a sentence can be imbalanced. I tried to point out the most common ones for you though.

Here are three tips to help you keep up with balanced sentences, quoted from "Line by Line: How to Improve your own Writing" by Claire Kehrwald Cook. (Page 73-74)

1. Look at the items you present in series to see that they match ing rammatical form, that you haven't interingled nouns with verbs or adjectives, infinitives with gerunds, or phrases with clauses. Make sure too, that you have been consistent about repeating initial prepositions, conjunctions, possessive pronouns, or articles; you usually have to include such words with all serial items or with only the first. If you can't put all the items in the same form, consider recasting the sentences to eliminate the series; the grouping may be illogical.

2. Notice the lements connected by "and" and "or" and make sure that they are grammatically equivalent. Then ask yourselv whether readers will immediately recognize what terms the conjunctions link. If the sentence componenets that look like a paira re not he ones you intend, revise to preclude misreading. Pay particular attention to the words that follow correlative conjunctions and make sure that they match exactly. If you cannot put coordinate elements in the same form without sounding unnatural, consider uncoupling them; they may be incompatible.

3. Finally, look closely at the elements you compare, especially those that follow "as" or "than", to see that they are logically and grammatically similar, that youa re comparing like with like. Also make sure to group like with like; check prepostional phrases that begin with words like "along with" and "among" to see that their objects belong in the same caegory as the words the phrases modify.

It sums up quite nicely all the things to check for in your sentences to ensure they are balanced.

Don't stress over the technicalities! If you can't find "prepositional phrases" that easily, it's okay. You can still read a sentence and "hear" that it's wrong. That moment when it doesn't sound right and you know how to fix it - you just don't know why. Picking out unbalanced sentences, is easy to do. Read your manuscript out loud! It sounds much different aloud than inside your head. I do this often with anything I write, including blog posts! If something doesn't sound right, tweak it until it does! And as I have said many times before, it never hurts to have someone else read over your work, even if they are not a professional editor. Another person will still catch things that you can't - as you are emotionally attached to your work!

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