How To Write Good Sentences

Before you read this page, be sure to read the following:

In particular, the Rules and Guidelines tell you what is required in a contribution, such as proper capitalization and pronunciation, and what is not allowed, such as copyrighted text or emoji.

What Makes a Good Contribution?

At Tatoeba, unlike in a dictionary, people write sentences, not individual words. However, many contributions are not sentences in the traditional meaning of the word. Some are series of two or more consecutive sentences, while others are sentence fragments. This page is meant to define what makes a good sentence in the Tatoeba sense. For clarity, the term "contribution" will be used to stand for "Tatoeba sentence" (that is, an item that has its own number), while "sentence" will be used in its traditional sense.

The questions that you should ask yourself before adding a contribution are "Will this contribution help non-native speakers? If it might confuse them, can I reduce the chance of confusion? If it might offend people, can I reword it or give people a way to filter it out?"

Criteria

Contributions that meet the following criteria are generally helpful and do not require tags:

  • clear
  • self-contained, or referring to a context that can be easily imagined
  • likely
  • written in a current, standard dialect of the language
  • natural
  • unlikely to offend

Contributions that do not meet all of those criteria may or may not be helpful. They can be made more helpful by:

  • adding context to the contribution itself (for instance, by adding words, or turning it into a dialogue)
  • adding tags (for example, "archaic", "controversial", "poetic", "vulgar")

Clear

Clear sentences are easy to understand. When the meaning of text is unclear, even if it is grammatically correct, it becomes distracting. An example of a clear sentence:

  • I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for a long time.

Unclear sentences are hard to figure out, often because the connection between parts of the sentences is unclear. For instance, the order of the words in this sentence makes it hard to understand:

  • He worked in a plant the year before last, and he enjoyed his job, but now it's closed.

Self-Contained

The following types of contributions are self-contained or refer to a context that can be easily imagined:

  • a well-formed sentence ("Run!"; "I see."; "I touched the ball first.")
  • a sentence fragment that is a likely utterance ("Wrong again!"; "No, the red ball, not the blue one.")
  • a coherent dialogue consisting of a sequence of well-formed sentences and/or likely sentence fragments whose meaning is clear ("You tricked me." "Only because you tricked me first.")

The following are not self-contained:

  • an unlikely fragment in isolation ("Red elephants and blue zebras.")
  • a fragment that contains too few or too many words to serve as a self-contained unit ("Better than." "The bottom of the one that.")

Likely

Likely text is language that one can easily imagine being spoken or written:

  • I wanted people to like me.
  • I'd still like to have coffee with you.

Unlikely text, whether or not it is grammatical, is distracting. An example is this sentence (composed by the linguist Noam Chomsky):

  • Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Standard dialect

A standard dialect covers a great deal of variation, from formal:

  • The proposal made by the committee has yet to be adopted.

to informal:

  • That's awesome!

However, it excludes archaic language and slang that is not generally familiar.

Natural

Natural contributions use syntax, structure, and word choice typical of native speakers using a standard dialect. The following contributions would violate one part or another of that criterion:

  • repetitive where a native speaker would avoid repetition ("We have a cat. We are fond of the cat.")
  • setting up a structure that is mostly but not fully parallel ("I like reading, watching movies, and to listen to music." instead of "I like reading, watching movies, and listening to music." or "I like to read, watch movies, and listen to music.")
  • including a word that would generally be omitted by a native speaker (as in "grape" in "We drank grape wine all day.")
  • including comma splices in languages (like English) that discourage them ("I ran around all day in the heat, it wasn't much fun.")

If you must translate a contribution with one of these issues, make sure your translation does not have the same issue. However, it's best to stay away from some such contributions in the first place.

Unlikely to Offend

Contributions that are unlikely to offend are those that do not:

Contributions that use sexual or vulgar language are permitted, but should be tagged accordingly ("sexual", "vulgar"). This will allow users to filter them out if they want. Naturally, avoiding sexual or vulgar language will make your contributions useful to the largest number of people visiting Tatoeba.

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