How to Use Grammar to Rewrite Sentences

grammar rewrite sentenceA solid understanding of English fundamentals allows for some very flexible sentence structures. Rules can be bent, complex ideas rearranged, and ideas rewritten – either for variety, adding spice to your texts, or simply to restate something in a different way (useful if you want to regurgitate other people’s ideas, for example). This is a subject I’d originally focused on from a foreign learner’s perspective, but came to realise it’s something all writers in English might benefit from taking a closer look at. To explore it fully, I’ve broken down an example sentence to demonstrate ways that English sentences can be rearranged.

Sentences with Ordinary Word Order

Using normal word order, I’ve created a simple, illustrative sentence with some standard components:

The men delivered the sandwiches to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

This presents the expected order of Subject (The men) Verb (delivered) Direct Object (the sandwiches) Prepositional Phrases (to everyone at the shop) Time (before lunchtime). Playing with this structure, and the ideas each component contains, we have many options to rewrite this sentence:


Changing Tenses

There are a number of ways that tenses can be changed, to give us a simple starting point. We could replace the verb with a different form, for example, giving the same meaning (here, we’ll change the Verb and Object):

The men made a delivery of sandwiches to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

How easy it is to do this will depend on the specific sentence. Sometimes it will not be possible at all, other times (for instance when dealing with the future simple) there may be many options.

Another technique is to use the passive tense, when the subject is not important, or we just want to appear less direct, or more neutral. Passive tenses put the Object before the verb and add a to be + past participle structure:

The sandwiches were delivered to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

The resulting sentence makes a point of being more interested in the action than the actor (who is no longer specified).

Given the opportunity to introduce a different verb structure, it is also possible to combine a passive tense for extra change:

A delivery of sandwiches was made to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.


Repositioning the Time

Times, in English, are usually placed at the beginning or the end of the sentence. At the start, times add emphasis, which elevates the time to framing the situation, rather than being additional information.

Before lunchtime, the men delivered the sandwiches to everyone at the shop.

We could also insert the time after the Subject or Object, between commas, though this is less natural. This method really adds emphasis to the time at a particular point in the sentence, where it might be surprising, so it should be done sparingly:

The men delivered the sandwiches, before lunchtime, to everyone at the shop.

Here, the time draws extra attention to when the delivery was made, rather than dwelling on who it was for. After the Subject, the time adds even more emphasis, and then seems even more unnatural (The men, before lunchtime, delivered…) – though if you ever wanted to use this structure, that is the idea.

Though I’ve treated it separately here, moving the time is just one example of changing prepositional phrases in general. It warranted a separate look to provide a clear example of moving a prepositional phrase. Looking at prepositional phrases in general, though, rewriting sentences starts to get more complicated.


Altering Prepositional Phrases

Lots of different rewrites are made possible by prepositional phrases, as they add additional information in so many different ways. Our example sentence contains two prepositional phrases beside our time: to everyone and at the shop.

Here, the preposition to can be seen as showing a direction and a purpose. At the shop, meanwhile, tells us a location, which may define where the sandwiches were delivered to or give us information about the preceding object – everyone (the people at the shop).

Breaking down the prepositional phrases in this way, it is possible to change the sentence in ways that go beyond word order. For a start, you could use different prepositions with similar meanings.

The men delivered the sandwiches for everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

The men delivered the sandwiches to everyone in the shop before lunchtime.

These very basic changes create only minor differences, which don’t really alter the meaning of sentence. It could change the meaning, though. The first example, for instance, could be misunderstood to mean the delivery was made at everyone’s request, rather than delivered to them (though in the context that’s a less likely interpretation). Other alterations could create more distinct differences, though:

The men delivered the sandwiches for the people of the shop before lunchtime.

Here, as we have not given a specific location for the action (which now merely defines who the people are), the sentence merely tells us the delivery’s purpose.

Keeping in mind sandwiches were for someone, though, there are alternative ways to rewrite this. When discussing purpose, we can use possessives, or possessive pronouns, instead of prepositional phrases:

The men delivered everyone’s sandwiches to the shop before lunchtime.

The men delivered everyone their sandwiches at the shop before lunchtime.

The effectiveness of this technique will depend a lot on the verb being used, as well as the relationship between the sentence’s components. Considering the verb deliver, using an Indirect Object sounds a little strange, but a different verb could sound more natural.

The men gave everyone their sandwiches at the shop before lunchtime.

If the Indirect Object is a pronoun (as long as the object is already understood), we have more flexibility:

The men delivered them their sandwiches at the shop before lunchtime.

By this point, hopefully it’s also become apparent that the second prepositional phrase can be affected in line with other changes. Originally, it was quite clear that everyone was at the shop, as their location was stated immediately after the noun. Moving for everyone away from at the shop, creates a different scenario, though. The men delivered everyone their sandwiches at the shop might be interpreted as the shop being the location of the delivery, without telling us if everyone belonged there.

Splitting phrases like this will sometimes cause no real problem (except for the pedantic). In certain circumstances it can actually change the meaning, though, so always be wary of dividing information. This becomes clearer with a more specific preposition:

The men delivered the sandwiches to everyone outside the shop.

The men delivered everyone their sandwiches outside the shop.

In the first example, everyone is defined as group as all the people in that area (outside the shop). In the second example, everyone is not specifically defined as a group, we are simply told where they received the sandwiches.

Navigating such interaction between ideas is essential in rewriting sentences. To move the location would need the same considerations. If it is not defining another object, location could be moved quite freely:

At the shop, the men delivered the sandwiches to everyone before lunchtime.

As with moving the time, this now frames the sentence. But should we want the location to define everyone (as specifically being all the people in the shop), that meaning is lost when the location is moved. If it becomes desirable to keep such information together, moving the location can then frame the sentence in a different way:

For everyone at the shop, the men delivered the sandwiches before lunchtime.

Here the action has a grand sense of purpose. And removing the additional information between the verb and time puts especial emphasis on the time – making it sound as though the men delivered the sandwiches specifically before lunchtime, on everyone’s request.

These are just a few of the ways that it’s possible to rearrange prepositional phrases, sometimes adjusting meaning and sometimes adding simple variety. There are many more options, when using more diverse prepositional phrases.


Other Possibilities in Rewrites

We’ve mostly been concerned with structure here, but changing vocabulary, of course, is also a major technique for rewriting sentences. The two areas are not exclusive, as different vocabulary can also give opportunities for different grammatical structure – just consider the simple example of replacing to everyone with everyone’s. Or the more elaborate earlier idea of replacing verbs with alternative structures, in part an exercise in vocabulary:

The men made a delivery of sandwiches to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

This change in verb brought a new prepositional phrase with it, opening the door to more changes:

Consisting of sandwiches, a delivery came the shop for everyone before lunchtime.

If that sounds implausible, it is. Indeed, it might lack something in clarity, or fluency, but from a point of view of acceptable English, it’s fine.

The possibilities for rewriting are as many as there are different sentences, so bear in mind the points covered here cover one very specific example. This starting point is designed to simply get you thinking along the right lines for rewriting whatever sentence you may come across. It can be applied to very simple or very complex sentences, including moving whole clauses (which may, even if massively complex, represent a basic component covered here). You can use just one or two simple techniques, or a combination of them all.

The men delivered the sandwiches to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

Before lunchtime, everyone at the shop’s sandwiches were delivered by the men.

To finish, though, and really drive the points home, and because this is a topic with uses in all areas of writing, I’ve diligently rewritten this entire article on three separate websites – here, on my language learning portal, and on my creative writing site. Every article covers the exact same points, in the same structure. But every sentence in every article has been changed. To practice what I’ve preached, and hopefully give you a binge-worthy collection of examples, read the different versions here and here.

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