Varying Sentence Structure with Embedded Clauses and Phrases
Writing in a fashion that is interesting and elegant for readers is certainly the hope of most academics and scholars, but it is also imperative that scholarly prose be clear, accurate and thorough, expressing facts and ideas with precision and sophistication. An effective way for authors to achieve all of these goals simultaneously can be found in the practice of varying the structure of the sentences used to describe procedures, report evidence and discuss meanings and implications. A book or paper should consist not only of simple sentences, but of compound and complex sentences as well, making good use of these longer structures, the details they can include, the relationships they can discuss and the logical progression they can provide. All three of these sentence types can be further varied and enriched with information of just about any kind by embedding descriptive clauses and phrases into their larger structures.
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There are two basic kinds of embedded clauses and phrases – essential and nonessential – and two basic punctuation patterns for incorporating them into sentences. Essential clauses and phrases are, as their name suggests, essential to the overall meaning of the sentences in which they appear. ‘The researchers who were working on the project strongly opposed its termination’ and ‘The book that is on the desk was most enjoyable’ both feature essential embedded material. In the first, ‘who were working on the project’ is the embedded clause; in the second, ‘that is on the desk’ is the essential embedded information. In neither case can the sentence retain its original meaning if the embedded clause or phrase is removed, and this close relationship is reflected in the lack of commas. Essential clauses and phrases do not require surrounding punctuation when they are embedded in sentences and other clauses. In some cases one or more of the words in an embedded construction may not be required and can certainly be eliminated if they prove awkward. ‘She claimed that the book that is on the desk was most enjoyable’ is a good example, with the elimination of ‘that is’ resulting in smoother wording: ‘She claimed that the book on the desk was most enjoyable.’
Embedded clauses and phrases that are nonessential also modify and qualify other elements of the sentences in which they are embedded, but such nonessential information, as the terminology implies, can be removed without altering the general meaning of a sentence or compromising its grammatical construction. ‘The conference attendees, particularly those who were specialists in the area, protested loudly’ and ‘The library books, which are all on the table, are entirely inappropriate for her age group’ both contain nonessential embedded clauses. In the first, ‘particularly those who were specialists in the area’ offers the additional information that the specialists were the most eager in their protest, but does not alter the rest of the sentence. In the second, ‘which are all on the table’ tells the reader where the books are, but their inappropriate nature remains unchanged. Phrases and clauses that are nonessential are usually enclosed in commas, as both these examples are, but they can alternatively be marked with dashes or parentheses. Dashes or parentheses can change the effect of an embedded clause or phrase and often enable different wording as well: ‘The conference attendees (none more so than the specialists) protested loudly’ and ‘The library books – I threw them on the table over there – are entirely inappropriate for her age group.’ Using commas, dashes and parentheses selectively around embedded nonessential material can therefore add further variation to sentence structure and can also be extremely helpful when reporting research data by allowing details to be added parenthetically amidst more general results and relationships.
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