“Stay on target … stay on target …”

Get a drink and maybe a snack and settle in. Today I’m talking about keeping yourself focused and targeted when writing complex sentences (both those defined that way grammatically and the ones that are just long).

I see the same thing happening time and again. A writer creates a sentence, probably a grammatically complex one with at least one dependent clause along with the independent clause, and somewhere, somehow, the focus of the sentence gets lost. By the time we’re at the terminal punctuation, the thrust has shifted from the grammatical subject to something else that’s related to it, grammatically speaking.

Let me show you what I mean. And please, keep in mind that it’s difficult for me to write badly, so my “don’t do this” examples are often pretty horrific. (Not bragging, just stating a fact. I know I’m incredibly fortunate to have this innate grammar sense.)

The house where she had lived as a child was decrepit now, squatting on its overgrown two-acre plot outside the town limits, with a father who neglected the yardwork as he had neglected his offspring.

(I didn’t entirely make that up. I patterned it after an actual sentence in a project I’ve worked on. Trust me, okay? Okay.)

So what’s the problem here? We start out being told about the house and its current state, and we end up hearing about a father mistreating his landscaping (or lawn, or gardens) and children. The connection is “as a child,” because that’s the child with the father we’re told about. The problem? The house didn’t have a father. The child did. However, the child isn’t the subject of the sentence. The child is the subject of a subordinate clause. These are two concepts being forced into a mold meant for one with embellishments.

She had lived in this house, and when she was living there her father was neglectful.

What I just wrote right there (from “She had” to “neglectful”) is a compound complex sentence. The “and” is one clue. What precedes it is an independent clause; it has a subject (she) and a verb (had lived), and it could stand alone as a sentence. What follows the “and” is a complex sentence; the subject is “father,” the verb is “was,” and “when she was living there” is a subordinate clause (its subject is “she” and its verb is also “was”). That subordinate clause is also a dependent clause; it cannot stand alone as a sentence. The word “when” makes that grammatically impossible.

Let’s back up to my awful example.

Can we make it into one grammatically correct complex sentence? Perhaps. It might be better, though, to split it into two. Let’s look closer and see which is the better option.

The house was decrepit now, squatting on its overgrown two-acre plot outside the town limits, much as when she had lived there with a father who neglected the yardwork as he had neglected his offspring.

(Is it perfect? No, but it’s no longer grammatically a disaster. Moving a phrase and rewording it lets us keep the focus on the house, not on the child.)

The house where she had lived as a child was decrepit now, squatting on its overgrown two-acre plot outside the town limits. Her father had neglected the yardwork as he had neglected his offspring.

(Again, it’s not perfect; it’s a bit clunky at this point, but the grammatical issue present in the original version has been resolved.)

Which approach is better? As is often the case, the answer is (I know you all hate to hear this) it depends. One writer might prefer the first version over the second. Another might feel the opposite. The writer’s style will help dictate which way to jump, so to speak. Some writers could just as easily go one way as the other; for them, I often leave comments offering both solutions, so they can come to their own version.

Certainly there are other edits one could make to improve this sentence/these sentences, but they’re not germane to the topic of this post. I’m keeping the focus on fixing a complex sentence that’s lost its way in the weeds. On that point, I’ve done what I set out to do.

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