CBA Record January-February 2024

Three steps to SVO Follow three steps for clear SVO construction: (1) identify the subject, verb, and object of the sentence; (2) put them close together; and (3) cut the sentence in two or move interrupting phrases to the end of the sentence. 1 . Identify the subject, verb, and object. This instruction may sound basic, but I am often surprised how few adults know basic grammar terms. Many law students tell me they never learned grammar in school. So, I will begin, as a good lawyer should, by defining terms. For some, this will put into words what you “knew” but could not define. For others, this may be a refresher or a way to educate those you supervise.


E nglish is known as a word-order language. Writing in Eng lish is most clear if sentences follow subject-verb object (SVO) construction. Readers look for the subject, verb, and object in the sentence, even if they aren’t familiar with those grammatical terms. Keeping subject-verb-object close together makes it easier for readers to understand your writing. As the federal gov ernment website,, explains, “When you put modifiers, phrases, or clauses between two or all three of these essential parts, you make it harder for [readers] to understand you.” Here’s a before-after example to get you started on the SVO approach. We will also show you how to incorpo rate it in your own writing. (This example and others are from Richard C. Wydick & Amy E. Sloan, Plain English for Lawyers (6th ed. 2019)). l Before : A claim, which in the case of negligent misconduct shall not exceed $500, and in the case of intentional misconduct shall not exceed $1,000, may be filed with the Office of the Administrator by any injured party. l After : Any injured party may file a claim with the Office of the Adminis trator. A claim must not exceed $500 for negligent misconduct or $1,000 for intentional misconduct. Wydick points out the problems with the “before” sentence, saying “[R]eaders must leap a 22-word gap to get from the subject (claim) to the verb (may be filed).” He warns that lawyers “should eliminate wide gaps between the subject, verb, and object in their writing. If those three key elements are set out in order, close together, near the front of the sentence, the reader will under stand quickly.” One can see that the “after” sentence is easier to understand. It closes the gap by following SVO construction. Keep It Together: Clear Writing Follows Subject-Verb-Object Order

Sentence A sentence is commonly defined as a complete unit of thought. It expresses an assertion, question, or command, or describes some one or something. It begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point in professional or formal writing. Subject The subject is usually a noun, which is a person, place, or thing. The subject of a sentence is the person or thing doing the action or being described. l The judge granted the motion. (The judge performed the action.) l The attorney is frustrated. (The attorney is being described.) Verb Verbs are action words. They tell what the subject is doing or express states of being. l The judge granted the motion. (The verb tells what the judge did.) l The attorney is frustrated. (Forms of the verb “to be” are the most commonly used in English to express states of being.)

Kathleen Dillon Narko is a Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and a member of the CBA Record Editorial Board.

36 JanuaryFebruary 2024

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