Empty sentences and how to fix them

One of the biggest problems I see in marketing pieces I edit isn’t subject-verb agreement or apostrophe abuse or “forego” in place of “forgo.” It’s empty sentences.

Marketing copy is especially prone to empty sentences. The writer is trying to convince you to buy something. But he can’t say, “Just buy this thing.” He must build a case — show you why some product or service or idea is worth your money or time. And that’s where writers can fall short, stringing together words that, instead of giving the reader real information, say nothing more than “Blah, blah, blah, buy this thing we’re selling.”

A passive reader just hears the “blah blah.” A close reader homes in on the meaninglessness at the heart of the sentence. Either way, the writer fails.

Here, slightly disguised, are some real examples of empty sentences I’ve come across recently.

The strength of investor, developer and tenant demand for retail space was strong in 2021. There are a couple things to dislike about this sentence, but pare it down and you’ll see that the basic subject is “the strength” and the predicate is “is strong.” The reader already knows strength is strong. You can fix this one easily by chopping off the first three words of the sentence.

The fear of saying something that might upset the grieving family may make you feel uncomfortable. Got that? Fear, an innately uncomfortable feeling, may make you feel uncomfortable. This sentence needs an overhaul. Start by asking whether “fear” makes a good subject. It does not because you’re not really making a point about fear, so you have nothing to say in the predicate. The issue isn’t what fear does. It’s the fear itself. So make that the point: “You fear you’ll say something that might upset the grieving family.”

Here are some more in my recent column.

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