Grammar books often define a sentence as a complete thought, but that maxim, true as it oftentimes is, might not be good enough if we want to revise our work more carefully.
Let’s say, for example, we wrote these two sentences in our first draft: One friend of mine builds log cabins for a living, and another sells real estate. They both live in Maine and they often work together. In revision, we determine that they sound clumsy; we sense that something is not balanced correctly, and suspect that the two sentences could be combined into one. But how?
Here’s where revising by clauses can offer some practical help. A clause is a group of words with a subject and a predicate (where the verb is), and every clause—here’s the important part—expresses a thought. So if a sentence has two clauses (and each of these two sentences does), then we’re actually dealing with four thoughts as we revise, not two sentences. For my money, that’s what we want to see—the logical skeleton of sentences, because with a picture of that structure, we can know what adjustment needs to be made.
So the structure of the two sentence looks like this. The vertical bar separates subject from predicate:
friend | builds log cabins
another | sells real estate
they | live in Maine
they | work together
And with that quick and simple analysis, we can see that the clumsiness we felt is caused in part by the order in which the four thoughts are presented: first the specific details of what our friends do for a living, then to where they live, and then back again to their work—from specific to general to specific again. So if we simply reorder the thoughts to move methodically from the general to the specific, we produce this:
Two friends of mine live in Maine and they often work together; one sells real estate and the other builds log cabins.
And if we want to tighten the assertion a bit, we can convert the first clause to a phrase, eliminating one clause all together:
Two friends of mine in Maine often work together; one sells real estate and the other builds log cabins.
And if we really want to get fancy, we can change the semicolon to a colon to propel the details in the second half of the sentence:
Two friends of mine in Maine often work together: one sells real estate and the other builds log cabins.
All these design changes result from a little knowledge of sentence structure, and this gives us much more control over the thoughts that erupt in our first draft. Creation is always messy, but our ideas have to take a certain shape before our readers can make sense easily and accurately of what we’re saying. Sentences are often too large a design element to handle deftly; that’s why it’s better to keep an eye first on the clauses that make up our sentences.