Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

11.6: Sentence Focus

  • Page ID
    20699
  • Figure: Image from Pixabay

    Sentence Focus

    Sentence focus means that the grammatical subject of your sentence is the same as the semantic subject. In other words, the meaning (semantics) subject matches the grammar. Sentences that aren’t focused can be confusing because it’s not clear who is doing what, and they tend to be overly wordy. If you need a refresher about how to identify the subject(s) and verb(s) in a sentence, see: "Verbs" and "Sentence Structure."

    Here is an example of an overly wordy, unfocused sentence:

    • In Smith's writing, there are many indications of their misunderstanding of natural selection.

    A more focused version of this sentence, which says the same thing could read:

    • Smith's argument indicates their misunderstanding of natural selection.

    Notice: The focused sentence has eight words instead of thirteen, but the revision hasn't eliminated any meaning! The prepositional phrase didn't add anything to the point, but we need to keep (and begin with) the subject, Smith's argument. Therefore, we can omit "in" and "an." "There are" can be removed because we aren't talking about existence here.

    You can avoid writing unfocused sentences by using active voice, using concrete subjects, using strong verbs, and keeping your subjects toward the beginning of the sentence and before the verb. Avoiding "there is/there are" can help keep sentences focused (unless you are writing about the existence of something). This is also true of "it is."

    Use Active Voice

    Use active voice when writing. However, passive voice can be acceptable when you want to keep the focus on what was done and not who did it. However, this should not be at the expense of clarity. In science writing, passive voice is generally expected in the methods section of research papers and in lab reports because the focus is on what’s being done, not who is doing it. In other sections of research papers and most writing, however, use active voice if possible.

    Passive voice occurs when the writer places the grammatical object in the subject position in a sentence. Therefore, the actual subject of the sentence is in the object position (at the end) or missing. In passive voice, the verb will be in past participle ( “to be” + “ed” verb) form. Looking for this verb form is one of the easiest ways to tell if a sentence is in passive voice. In the following example, the subject (if there is one) is in bold and the past participle verb is underlined.

    Examples: The frog was dissected by the student.

    A solution was added to the beaker. (By whom?)

    To identify passive voice, look for verbs that use a form of the “to be” (“was”, “is” “being,”) and a past tense verb (ends in “ed”) after it. Then ask yourself whether this is an acceptable use of the passive.

    Tip: The difference between past perfect tense and a past participle is that the subject is at the end of the sentence or nonexistent with a past participle. The subject will still be before the verb with the past perfect tense.

    Writing at Work

    At work, we commonly must ask people to do things, or we might need to make a recommendation. Sometimes, we may feel as though our tone is too direct if we use the active voice. In some work situations, the passive voice may seem more polite, and it may be acceptable to use the passive voice in some cases. However, even at work, most writing should be in active voice. Active voice implies responsibility and transparency; conversely, if passive voice is used when it isn't needed, it can appear that you are trying to hide something. Such situations have been captured by the phrase "mistakes were made," implying that no one takes responsibility for those mistakes and that the writer or speaker is dishonest.

    A direct tone and active voice is also valued in American business life. Business cultures in other parts of the world may differ in their expectations about this, so if you plan to work for companies outside of the U.S. or for international companies within the U.S., research the acceptable style for making requests at your workplace.

    Exercise 1

    Identify which sentences are in passive voice in the following sentences. The first couple of sentences have clues. The rest do not.

    1. Measurements were performed on the wood timbers by a construction worker.

    2. They were satisfied with the outcome of the discussion.

    3. Removal of the mitochondria was achieved by the scientist.

    4. Two samples were obtained from each brain.

    5. Our results showed that the dogs were protected by the vaccine.

    Exercise 2

    In each of the following sentences and on a separate piece of paper, a) decide if the sentence is active or passive; b) decide whether the use of the passive is acceptable and why or why not; and c) rewrite the sentence in active voice if the passive voice is not acceptable.

    1. Marijuana caused an increase in apetite and a reduction in pain.

    2. Ozone continued to be depleted because of aerosol spray use.

    3. A mistake was made.

    4. Mouse testing proceeded for the Phase B trials.

    5. Group and individual activities were participated in by the class.

    6. Documents should be submitted online by July 10.

    Collaboration

    Compare what you did with a classmate. If your answers or changes don't agree, bring it up in class.

    Avoid "There Is/There Are" and "It Is" Most of the Time

    “There is” is not necessary unless you are writing about the existence of something. “There is” tends to cloud writing because it shoves the real subject of the sentence farther down into the sentence. Choose the actual topic as the subject of your sentence and eliminate “there is.” You may need to change the verb and possibly a relative pronoun as well because of the changes in sentence structure that "there is" creates. Begin your core clause with the subject you are writing about. In the example sentences, below, the core sentence is in brackets. In the unfocused examples, the grammatical subject is in bold and the semantic (meaning) subject is in red. In the focused sentences, since the grammatical and semantic subjects are one in the same, they are just bold.

    Unfocused sentence: In Malaysia, [there are large numbers of women in computer science], which is not perceived as a "masculine" field.

    Focused sentence: In Malaysia, [large numbers of women are in computer science], which is not perceived as a "masculine" field.

    “It is” can be written better most of the time; the phrase tends to be empty filler.

    Unfocused sentence: It is with the utmost care that [I craft my sentences].

    Focused sentenced: [I craft my sentences] with the utmost care.

    Exercise 3 \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    In the following sentences, decide if "there is," "there are," or "it is" are talking about existence or giving extra emphasis to something. If not, rewrite the sentence.

    1. There are three measures, and they all point to the idea that we need to be concerned about climate change.

    2. It is with great pleasure that I introduce our guest speaker!

    3. It is a lovely day.

    4. There is a god.

    5. After going to see the band play, there were some shady characters outside, so I decided to hang around awhile inside.

    The subject and an object of a preposition cannot be the same word

    The subject of a sentence cannot also be the object of a prepositional phrase. This problem commonly occurs when students introduce sources in their writing. In the following incorrect examples, the subject of the sentence (in brackets) appears in an introductory prepositional phrase (in blue). The corrected examples follow. Notice that in most cases, the introductory prepositional phrase disappears. (For more explanation of a prepositional phrase and subjects, see "Prepositional Phrases" and "Word Order and Sentence Structure").

    Incorrect: Therefore, with [the lack of qualified teachers] will only cause unqualified students in the future.

    Correct: Therefore, [the lack] of qualified teachers will only cause unqualified students in the future.

    Incorrect: According to [Romeo, laments] "Parting is such sweet sorrow."

    Correct: [Romeo laments], "Parting is such sweet sorrow."

    Correct: According to popular culture, [Romeo's statement, "Parting is such sweet sorry," is] still a popular line.

    Notice that the last example still begins wit a prepositional phrase, but the object of the preposition, "popular culture" is different from the subject of the sentence, "Romeo's statement."

    Tip: Do not double your subject by saying the subject and a pronoun that stands for the subject right after it.

    Incorrect: Emily Dickinson, she wrote a lot of poems, most of which were not read until after she died.

    Correct: Emily Dickinson wrote a lot of poems, most of which were not read until after she died.

    Exercise 4

    For this exercise, rewrite any sentence in which the subject is doubled up or the subject also appears as the object of the preposition in a prepositional phrase.

    1. By "dogginess" means the qualities of following directions and providing love.

    2. According to Brandeis, she states that "the prevalence of male tress in the landscape contributes to peoples' allergy problems."

    3. In the article claims that gun violence can be reduced if gun responsibility becomes part of the training.

    4. According to Jones, said that whether someone will become violent in a given situation depends on a combination of nature and nurture.

    5. In doing this demonstrates her self-centeredness.

    6. My tortoiseshell cat, she responds to music by moving her tail at different tempos.

    Exercise 5

    Fix the sentence focus in the following sentences using the strategies practices on this page. Ask yourself: Who or what does what (to whom or what)? Then, use concrete subjects and active verbs.

    1. Also, there is a need for more current curricula, and also a need for more teachers.

    2. If the education system is funded equally and provided with proper materials might just fix the gap.

    3. Although the interplay among economic factors is important, it is often the availability of affordable childcare that determines whether a parent returns to the work force.

    4. The boiling water is drained in the colander, the pasta shook dry, and the sauce drizzled on it.

    5. People argue about whether there are ghosts.

    6. Before my dog was washed, we went to the beach.

    7. By disentangling words will create a more concise sentence.

    8. After having her bath, there was a dog park she wanted to go to.

    9. Sniffing everything, my dog she dawdles while she walks.

    10. It is taking us forever to go a few blocks because there are fire hydrants to sniff and barking dogs to respond to, and at the end is pooped out.

    Contributors

    • Revision, Adaptation, and Original Content. Provided by: Libretexts. License: CC BY-SA 4.0: Attribution.