SPELL—Making Sense of Sentences
If you feel that your English classes included so many sentence-writing rules that you couldn’t possibly remember them all, this blog is for you. The following text describes a five-part framework for demystifying the writing and revising of sentences. The framework is built on the acronym SPELL.
S is for Structure
When you think of sentence structure, think of three basic elements: subject, verb, and complement.
Consider the following sentence: “Maria wrote an email to Chad.”
To make your sentences structurally sound, as well as clear and effective, here are a few guidelines for subjects, verbs, and complements. To help remember these guidelines, keep in mind the letters S (for subjects), V (for verbs), and C (for complements).
First, use Strong, Specific subjects. Generally try to avoid weak subject structures like “There are” and “It is.”
No: There are 26 unanswered emails in my mailbox.
It is important for you to attend Friday’s meeting.
Yes: My mailbox contains 26 unanswered emails.
You should attend the important meeting on Friday.
Of course, the pronoun it is appropriate when it refers to a specific thing, such as, “I am sending you last week’s report. It contains the sales activities of our entire office.”
Second, place verbs in the Vicinity of subjects. Sentences with separated subjects and verbs can be hard to follow.
No: This report on the gradual decline of sales in the Northeast is a warning statement of what could happen in other regions.
Yes: This report warns us that the decline of sales in the Northeast could also occur in other regions if we are not careful.
Third, keep the complement Clear and free of Clutter.
No: We provide each of our not-for-profit clients with frequent updates and communication of relevant accounting developments and changes in standards throughout the year.
Yes: For each of our not-for-profit clients, we provide frequent updates on all changes in relevant accounting standards.
P is for Punctuation
The English language contains over a dozen punctuation marks, including commas, semicolons, colons, dashes, hyphens, parentheses, apostrophes, quotation marks, ellipses periods, and others. After checking the structure of a sentence, check the punctuation. Frequent punctuation problems involve commas and hyphens.
The two main functions of a comma are to divide and to replace. For example, a comma divides two independent clauses, as follows:
No: I will create the sales brochure and Rachel will design the website.
Yes: I will create the sales brochure, and Rachel will design the website.
For business writing, a comma should also divide the last two items in a series:
No: The discount will be in effect for January, February and March.
Yes: The discount will be in effect for January, February, and March.
Further, commas should be used to divide, or set off, interrupting elements of a sentence:
No: He was however not chosen for this year’s award.
Yes: He was, however, not chosen for this year’s award.
Yes: She was, in my opinion, the best candidate for the job.
A comma replaces the word and in the situations involving two parallel adjectives:
No: The lengthy [and] detailed report prompted a series of investigations.
Yes: The lengthy, detailed report prompted a series of investigations.
Hyphens should be used in most cases involving compound adjectives (two or more adjacent adjectives acting jointly as one modifier).
No: We are experiencing a one week delay in our shipments.
Yes: We are experiencing a one-week delay in our shipments.
No: Last week he applied for a small business loan. [This is correct if the loan was small, but not if the loan was for a small business.]
Yes: Last week he applied for a small-business loan.
Finally, one punctuation mark ought to be used more than it is—the dash. Dashes can often be used in place of commas, colons, and parentheses, as in the following cases:
Commas: He implied, although he didn’t actually say it, that Jack would be transferred.
Dashes: He implied—although he didn’t actually say it—that Jack would be transferred.
Colon: We finally received the needed part: the long-awaited JRX34 switch.
Dash: We finally received the needed part—the long-awaited JRX34 switch.
Parentheses: This morning I tried to call Sara (the third time in two days) to tell her about Amy.
Dashes: This morning I tried to call Sara—the third time in two days—to tell her about Amy.
E is for Errors in Grammar
Grammatical errors in your writing can severely undermine your credibility; they present an image of ignorance or laziness—that you don’t know or don’t care about certain rules of writing. Watch especially for errors in case (subjective, objective, and possessive), agreement (number, person, and gender), tense (past, present, and future), mood (indicative, imperative, and subjunctive), numbers (what to write as words and what to write as figures), and capitalization.
The rules governing grammar errors are too numerous to deal with in this blog, but you can find complete coverage of these rules on this website under the menu link Grammar and Format Guide. This guide focuses on the most frequently used and abused grammar problems in business. Spend two or three evenings reviewing this section to brush up on rules that you once knew but may have forgotten.
L is for Language
With sentence structure, punctuation, and grammar errors taken care of, you are ready to check the words themselves. First, words should be clear—they should be easily understandable to the audience. For example, technical words are fine to use if the audience is familiar with them.
Second, they should be appropriately specific—neither too general nor too precise. For instance, in one context you might use the word employee, in another context you might use the word accountant, and in yet another context you might use the name of an actual employee--Kent Jackson.
Third, the words you use should be correct in spelling, usage, and meaning. You should be aware of words that often cause problems, such as spelling receive with the e before the i and using principal and principle, affect and effect, and its and it’s correctly.
Fourth, the words you use should be considerate. They should be appropriately formal and have the appropriate tone for the situation.
L is for Length
Sentences should be concise. Concise writing is not short and choppy with just the minimal content included. Rather, concise writing contains complete content, but reflects carefully crafted sentences, with no unnecessary words. In other words, every word should be necessary and make a useful contribution to the sentence.
Long, wordy sentences can be shortened in three simple ways. First, omit useless words. For example, instead of saying, “He made the exact same error last week,” say, “He made the same error last week.” Because exact and same mean the same thing, one of the words is useless. Second, replace passive-voice writing with active-voice writing (say “Ann wrote the report,” rather than “The report was written by Ann”). Third, condense wordy passages of text by asking yourself, “Could I express the same content with fewer words?”
To learn about SPELL in more detail, review Appendix A of our book Writing and Speaking for Business on this website. Business and government writers will find Appendix A to be a useful in resolving most basic sentence and grammar questions. This appendix is also useful in preparing to take the GMAT or LSAT exam. For example, one student wrote, “I had taken several GMAT practice tests and had scored around average on the verbal section. However, before I took the real GMAT, I reviewed the grammar section in Writing and Speaking for Business and scored significantly above average. The tips in the book are incredibly useful, and the examples make the rules easy to understand.”
Commit these five SPELL terms to memory, and use them to check your own sentences and the sentences of others who ask for your feedback. As you gain experience using SPELL, both your writing and your writing confidence will increase.
We're Bill, Matt, and Vince, and we hope these posts will help you more effectively teach business and professional communication. If you like what you read, please consider teaching from our business and professional communication textbook.