A Little Something About Myself
So far, we have covered the content of your essay, the organization of your essay, and the holistic issues to think about in the revision stage. These last three chapters will focus on the finer points of writing—the kinds of things to focus on in the final stage of the writing process: proofreading. In this chapter, we’ll look at the sentences that express your ideas, and in Chapter 7, at the words you choose to compose your sentences. In Chapter 8, we’ll briefly review the broad areas of grammar, usage, and mechanics.
Defining the Sentence
The sentence–a group of words that expresses a complete thought–is the basic building block of writing. Writing at its essence is the stringing together of these chunks of meaning. This means that if you can get your sentences right, you will eventually get all of writing right. Good writing is about writing good sentences.
The most basic quality of a good sentence is clarity. You want your sentence to communicate its message clearly to the reader. But saying precisely what you mean is not nearly as easy as it sounds. Below are two suggestions for writing with greater clarity.
Include just one new idea per sentence.
One way to avoid confusing your reader is to keep sentences simple. That’s not to say that long, complex sentences are to be avoided. Just be careful that you don’t lose your reader along the way. If you are concerned that an idea isn’t clear enough, try breaking long sentences into smaller ones. It is possible to combine any number of related ideas into a single sentence, but it’s easy to create confusion or grammatically awkward sentences if you try to do too much.
Instead of: Loyalty is a quality valued by both men and women all around the world; however, among the women of the Ching-Changa community, loyalty is considered the greatest of virtues.
Simplify: Loyalty is valued by people all around the world. Among the women of the Ching-Changa community however, loyalty is considered the greatest of virtues.
Keep subject and verb close together.
To keep sentences simple and avoid grammatical errors like subject-verb disagreement, we suggest you keep your subjects and verbs close together.
We all learned to write using simple subject-verb sentences, and it’s often still the best way to go. The more you load up modifiers, phrases, and clauses between these key words, the more work you create for your reader. Take this badly written sentence for example:
The implementation of the project specifications for which we've been waiting at least six months, an implementation that should have been completed by now and was, in fact, begun well before the present team came on board to pick up the slack from the previous team, is critical to the project's success and the maintenance of the account.
The first underlined word, implementation, is the subject of the sentence. The double-underlined word, is, is the verb, or simple predicate. Forty-six words come between them! It’s a long sentence anyway, but what makes it hard to follow isn’t simply the length, but the delay between the subject and the verb.
If you find yourself stuck on a sentence that seems to ramble, a sentence that just wanders around the idea you are trying to communicate, check to see if the subject and verb are near to one another. If not, you probably have an easy solution: close that gap.
Here’s an example of the difference it makes when you reduce the distance between subject and verb:
Bad: The oxygen in the tank, even though Ralph, who was always careful, made sure it was full before loading up the boat and setting out for the expedition, was nearly gone. (24 words between subject and verb)
Better: The oxygen in the tank was nearly gone even though Ralph, who was always careful, made sure it was full before loading up the boat and setting out for the expedition. (3 words between subject and verb)
Or: Even though Ralph, who was always careful, made sure it was full before loading up the boat and setting out for the expedition, the oxygen in the tank was nearly gone. (3 words between subject and verb)
Good writers vary their sentences to avoid a dull, monotonous style. That means variety in both length and form. Here are some strategies for varying your sentences.
Reversing Word Order
One simple technique for changing up your sentences is to turn them upside-down. Most English sentences follow a subject-verb order. Here are two ways to reverse that and add some variety.
Start with a Prepositional Phrase
Some sentences can be inverted by beginning with a prepositional phrase:
Instead of: The new lamp stood in the corner.
Try: In the corner stood the new lamp.
Instead of: The worst disaster yet arrived in the dead of winter.
Try: In the dead of winter arrived the worst disaster yet.
Start with here or there
Sentences that begin with the pronouns here or there are typically inverted:
Instead of: A long, miserable season remained for the Dodgers.
Try: There remained a long, miserable season for the Dodgers.
Instead of: A brand new idea was here.
Try: Here was a brand new idea.
Don’t overdo this sentence-reversing, but it’s a way to mix up your sentences once in a while.
Varying Sentence Beginnings
Not only do most sentences progress from subject to verb, but most sentences actually begin with the subject (or a noun phrase that includes the subject). A simple way to vary your sentences is by moving modifying words, phrases, or clauses to the beginning of the sentence, and the subject toward the end. In the examples below, I have underlined the subject.
Instead of: Our hero suddenly reached out his hand and saved Henrietta.
Try: Suddenly reaching out his hand, our hero saved Henrietta.
Instead of: I gather coconuts every morning at 6:35.
Try: Every morning at 6:35, I gather coconuts.
Instead of: The boy faced his enemy with astounding courage.
Try: With astounding courage, the boy faced his enemy.
Instead of: The party really started when Ed arrived in a gorilla costume.
Try: When Ed arrived in a gorilla costume, the party really started.
Different Kinds of Structure
Sentences come in an infinite number of shapes and sizes, but there are only four basic ways to structure the clauses that make up sentences. In this section, we will review those four basic sentence structures. Keep these four options in mind, and use a variety of them as you compose your essays.
Pardon the quick grammar review, but it can’t be helped. In order to understand the four sentence structures, you must remember the difference between an independent clause and a subordinate (or dependent) clause.
Independent Clause: An independent clause is a group of words that includes a subject and a verb, expresses a complete thought, and can stand alone as a complete sentence.
The unicorn used his horn to toast marshmallows.
The mummy lost his wallet.
You may notice that these examples of independent clauses look just like simple sentences. That’s exactly right–a sentence must contain at least one independent clause, and sometimes that’s all it contains. In the following examples, the independent clauses are underlined.
When I eat lemons, my eyes water.
Seth crossed his fingers, and Beth said a little prayer.
In these examples, the underlined clauses could stand alone as complete sentences, but they happen to be combined with other word groups. In the second example, two independent clauses – Seth crossed his fingers, and Beth said a little prayer–are joined by the conjunction and.
Subordinate Clause: A subordinate clause (sometimes called a dependent clause) also contains a subject and a verb, but it does not express a complete thought and must be joined to an independent clause in order to become a complete sentence.
When I eat lemons, my eyes water.
If you see my lost puppy, call my cell phone.
William cried because he lost the sack race.
Notice that the underlined subordinate clauses could not stand alone as sentences because they express only a partial thought. By themselves, they would be sentence fragments. The independent clauses linked to them complete the thought.
The Four Sentence Structures
Now that you know the two kinds of clauses, you can grasp the four ways they can be combined into sentences.
The first is called a simple sentence. A simple sentence is composed of just one independent clause:
A compound sentence is composed of two or more independent clauses joined by a comma and a coordinating conjunction or by a semicolon.
A complex sentence is composed of an independent clause joined by at least one subordinate clause.
And finally, a compound/complex sentence is composed of two or more independent clauses and at least one subordinate clause.
That’s it. Every sentence ever written falls into one of these four categories: simple, compound, complex, or compound/complex. Try to vary the sentences you write by changing the way you combine independent and subordinate clauses.
Writing Great Sentences
So far in this chapter, I’ve suggested strategies for writing sentences that are clear and varied. Below are some additional suggestions for writing excellent sentences.
Avoid Rhetorical Questions
Why do student writers so often open paragraphs with rhetorical questions? (Yes, that was a rhetorical question.) There’s nothing wrong with opening with a question, except that it’s overdone. Students do it too often. For this reason, I recommend avoiding this practice. With a little work, you can convert these questions into simple statements:
No: How many great men and famous leaders had little to no education? More than you would think.
Yes: Many great men and famous leaders had little to no education.
See if you can identify what the following famous words have in common:
I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. -Winston Churchill
This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. -Neil Armstrong
I came, I saw, I conquered. -Julius Caesar
History has remembered these quotations in part because they were spoken by important people during historically important times. But they are famous not just for who said them, nor for what they say, but also because of the way they sound. There is a distinct rhythm, a cadence, to each of these statements. This rhythm is due to parallelism, sometimes called parallel structure.
What if Churchill had said it like this?
I have nothing to offer but my blood, toiling, the tears I cry, and perspiration.
No one would have remembered those words for long.
The difference lies in the grammatical form of the list. In the original quote, Churchill lists four one-syllable nouns: blood, toil, tears, sweat. In this second version, there is a pronoun/noun combination, a present participle, a noun clause, and a noun with four syllables. There’s no consistent pattern, no rhythm, no parallelism. Both sentences communicate the same idea, but in the second version, the power and music of the words is lost.
The rule of parallelism is simple: Items in a list should be in the same grammatical form.
Here are some examples:
Not Parallel: The students love to run, play and swimming.
Parallel: The students love to run, play and swim.
Or: The students love running, playing, and swimming.
The rule of parallelism goes for any kind of word list – including nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs.
Nouns: What impresses me about Alfred is his loyalty, determination and humility.
Verbs: Julius swiveled, swooped and alley-ooped his way to NBA stardom.
Adjectives: The evening sky seemed more vast, silent, and empty than ever.
Adverbs: Lightly, gracefully, and swiftly, the eagle descended.
The same principle applies when including a series of phrases, clauses, or even whole sentences. Reread the quotes by Armstrong and Caesar above. Part of what makes these famous statements unforgettable is the repetition of word structure.
In the first quote, Armstrong repeats the same pattern: adjective (one), adjective (small/giant), noun (step/leap), preposition (for), noun (man/mankind). The Julius Caesar quote repeats three independent clauses beginning with the pronoun I (Caesar, of course, would have spoken these words in Latin: Veni, vidi, vici).
It’s not necessary to analyze your sentences this carefully, of course. Parallelism usually happens by instinct. There’s just something nice about the sound of repeating word patterns.
It’s even possible to string together whole sentences with parallel structure:
Everyone prepared for the big test in his own way. Evan was up past midnight. Chad arose before dawn. Evelyn didn’t sleep at all.
Tip: When sentences are this closely related and maintain parallel structure, you can use semicolons instead of periods to separate them. This normally improves the flow of the passage by eliminating the complete stop a period requires:
Everyone prepared for the big test in his own way. Evan was up past midnight; Chad arose before dawn; Evelyn didn’t sleep at all.
As you write, stay aware of the opportunities to create parallel structures in your phrases, clauses, and sentences.
The Rule of Three
There’s something magic about the number three. You’ve got your three bears, three little pigs, even three billy goats gruff. A stool needs three legs, the federal government has three branches, three strikes and you’re out. Three lights make up a traffic light, three sides make a triangle, and everything starts with “one…two…three…go!”
Keep in mind the magic of the number three. It’s not written in stone anywhere, but there is something satisfying about things that come in threes.
Why do you think phone numbers and social security numbers are broken into three parts? It’s easier to remember three-part combinations. Check out these familiar three-piece expressions:
past, present, and futurered, white, and blueme, myself, and IThe Good, the Bad, and the Uglyhook, line, and sinkerI came, I saw, I conquered bacon, lettuce, and tomatoblood, sweat, and tearsmorning, noon, and nightTom, Dick, and Harryhear no evil, see no evil, speak no evilready, willing, and abletall, dark, and handsomehealthy, wealthy, and wiselife, liberty and the pursuit of happinessfriends, Romans, countrymenIt’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman! stop, look, and listenfaith, hope, and lovesnap, crackle, and popbaseball, hot dogs, and apple pie signed, sealed, deliveredbody, mind, and spirit punt, pass, and kick
We have already looked at parallelism. The rule of three applies to almost all parallel structures. That doesn’t mean you should force it: a series of two or four can work too. Be aware, however, that groups of three tend to fall sweetly on the ear. This is true in series of nouns:
The suitcase was stuffed with fives, tens, and twenties.
Jane Austen’s characters often embody charm, wit, and grace.
…in series of adjectives:
Citizens in a constitutional republic must be free, equal, and responsible.
The sun rose dull, red, and ominous.
…and in series of verbs:
Before winning the day, Madison wrangled, pleaded, and reluctantly negotiated with other Virginian representatives.
Overwhelmed by weariness, his eyelids fluttered, drooped, and finally closed.
The rule of three applies to phrases, clauses, and even entire sentences:
The desperate child searched through closets, under beds, and between sofa cushions for his lost blanket.
In efforts to gain votes, Watson joined the local country club, Walters began hosting dinner parties, and Garrison began wearing tailored suits.
The last line of defense was the tiger pit. George and the boys waited breathlessly for the approaching pirates. To their amazement, the heedless buccaneers walked right into their trap.
Look for opportunities to apply the rule of three to your writing.
Saving the Best for Last
People adopt various strategies for eating dinner. Some mix all the dishes into a single slop and eat it all at once. Others keep their food in carefully separated piles and eat them one at a time. Most of us are less conscientious about such matters and simply jump about the plate randomly.
Perhaps the most common strategy, however, particularly among children, is to save the best for last. If the lima beans must be eaten, we might as well gulp them down first and get them out of the way. But we’ll hold off on that steaming peach cobbler until the plate is otherwise clean. That way there will be no distractions and each bite might engage our full attention.
Sentences are like a savory meal, and the best strategy is almost always the same:
Save the most important part of a sentence for the end.
The minds of readers focus best on the last thing they’ve heard, so saving a sentence’s best part for the end is a good way to leave them impressed. Check out the differences between the following examples. We’ve underlined the most important part of each sentence.
okay:The violinist’s final number left everyone breathless because of his passionate playing.
better: Because of his passionate playing, the violinist’s final number left everyone breathless.
okay: The forbidden castle stood stark and ominous against the darkening sky.
better: Stark and ominous against the darkening sky stood the forbidden castle.
Notice how the following long sentence leaves the most powerful and important few words for last:
With these hopes and in this belief I would urge you, laying aside all hindrance, thrusting away all private aims, to devote yourself unswervingly and unflinchingly to the vigorous and successful prosecution of this war.
Maybe you’ve noticed that leaving the best for last often requires the techniques of reversing word order or varying sentence beginnings, which we talked about at the beginning of this chapter.
This rule – saving the best for last – not only works for words in a sentence, but also for sentences in a paragraph and for paragraphs in a composition. What comes last is best etched in the minds of your readers.
Chapter Six Summary
Learning how to write solid, clear, varied sentences is one key to good writing. Every essay is written one sentence at a time, after all. Work to incorporate the suggestions I’ve provided in this chapter and your sentences will quickly improve. In the next chapter, we’ll dig down a little deeper and discuss word choice.
Technically, the final stage of the writing process is publishing, but this is the last stage that involves actual work on the paper itself.