Noun, Verb and Object: The Holy Trinity

At one of my teaching stops, students were required to fill out an evaluation at the end of the class and explain what they learned. Some wrote a lot, some wrote things that are anatomically impossible for me to do. One student wrote simply this:

“Noun, verb, object: The Holy Trinity.”

If you want to write well, he’s not far off. The thing that makes most sentences good is that they consist of concrete nouns and vigorous verbs. They also tell simple stories in active voice: The noun-verb-direct object order.


Above is a simple sentence diagram (It’s even a bit off, in that the “object” should be “direct object,” but you get the idea). In fourth grade, Sister Mary Kenneth beat this into us over and over and over: Draw a diagram and dissect the sentence. (She was about 183 years old when she taught me all those years ago; It would not surprise me if she were still out there somewhere, scaring the hell out of preteens in an English class…)

The goal here isn’t necessarily to fully diagram a sentence or to create an intricate overall visual structure, but rather to help you boil down your thoughts to a few simple words. If you can build your sentences with a good NVO structure, you can avoid using far too many adjectives and adverbs. You can also improve the overall clarity of your approach to content and build your stories in a more reader-centric fashion. Consider this lead:

Firefighters fought a blaze at a burning house, Tuesday evening, in Springfield, that was caused by electrical failure in a storage room.

If you want break that down into a simple sentence diagram, or at least locate some of those “main idea” words, look for the verb:

Action word: Fought
Noun (who did the fighting?): Firefighters
Object (what did the firefighters fight?): A blaze.

So in short, you have a core sentence that says “Firefighters fight fire.” Isn’t that what they always do? Instead, look at what matters most: What the fire did. How bad was the fire? Try this instead:

An electrical fire caused $150,000 damage to a Springfield home Tuesday, after a freezer malfunctioned in a storage room and sparked the blaze, fire officials said.

NVO = Fire caused damage.

Other good starts could be “Fire damaged home” or if people were hurt/killed “Fire hurt/killed people”

At the core of all strong sentences are those primary elements, so when you write, look to see how your sentences stack up.


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