The Subtlety of the Sentence


There exists a stark difference between what you are trying to communicate and the actual words you use to this end. Pay attention the next time you read a book or article. Chances are, somewhere, a cogent engaging thought will be diffused by hasty wording. This post is a plea to not fall into that trap within your writing and mine.

I wish to primarily argue for a process so subtle that we take it for granted. This process involves two steps: (1) In your mind, isolate the thought you wish to communicate, and (2) choose VERY CAREFULLY the appropriate quality and quantity of words to express this thought. 

EXCURSUS: Step two represents the appropriate usage of a Thesaurus. Here is the incorrect thought that should prompt the use of a Thesaurus: "This word sounds too basic, I need a bigger one." I want you to annihilate that thought. Here is the correct thought that should prompt the use of a Thesaurus: "There is a slight nuance to this word that lacks what I am trying to communicate, I need different one." 

Isolating Thoughts

To some degree, all languages are just code for abstract, cognitive concepts we wish to convey. Whenever you begin a sentence, take some time—maybe a few seconds—to recognize what it is you are trying to say. 

At Montaigu, Calvin was subjected to a rigid schedule and harsh treatment. Arising at nearly four o'clock every morning, his day of work and study was broken only for meager meals and interruptions. The schoolmaster was very hard on the students there, often beating them if he saw fit. Such a lifestyle would surely impact Calvin's work ethic later down the road.

This sentence is quite verbose and includes some unnecessary details—read unnecessary words. What idea, however, is behind all that gab? The idea is that Calvin's harsh schedule at Montaigu was formative for his later massive output.

Choosing Words

Since I have now identified the bare thought behind all that bombast, I can now choose more economic words. Here I like to think in basic sentence-types to get a skeleton. My subject is "Calvin's time at Montaigu," my verb is "prepared," the predicate needs to contain an element of "future" and "productivity." After scrutiny, I choose the following sentence.

Calvin's demanding and structured time at Montaigu developed the qualities necessary to support his later prolificacy.

No unnecessary details, nothing to abstract, and no words "too big for my briches." Isolate, then communicate!


To some degree, it is very difficult to make up a sentence divorced from context. I hope, however, that you understand the point. Do not take for granted the (1) idea and (2) words behind and within a sentence, respectively. These take conscious, intentional effort and craft! Happy Writing!