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[Writing] Sentence Structure

category: Writing | course: Writing with Style | difficulty:

The previous two chapters discussed individual words and punctuation, which means we’re now ready for: sentence structure! Choosing stronger verbs or using different punctuation already slightly changes the way a sentence is built, but the rules in this chapter have a much greater impact.

Length

Whatever floats your boat. Some people say you should avoid long sentences for their unnecessary complexity, while others avoid short sentences because they can’t put any information in there. But the answer is: both should be used, and preferably in alternation. This is discussed more in depth in the chapter about rhythm, but here are some tips.

  • Prefer simple to technical: At points of greatest complexity, use shorter words, sentences and paragraphs. Occasionally putting difficult or extraordinary words in a sentence is fine, but it automatically makes a sentence seem longer, so watch out.
  • In Moderation: Long sentences are perfect for describing something broad or extensive, while short ones are for quick, sudden, standalone actions. Use short, medium and long ones among each other.

Starting a Sentence

The first words of a sentence are very important. They set the tone for the rest of the sentence, or maybe even the rest of the paragraph or book. They should be used to make the sentence’s intention or action clear, so you can add details later on. This technique is called branching to the right.

You should start a sentence with the subject and verb(s), letting subordinate elements branch to the right, towards the end of the sentence.

He, the man with wooden leg, took the treasure.

He took the treasure, the man with wooden leg.

As you can see, in this case, both versions are fine. If the sentence is short, you can break this ‘rule’ and do what sounds or looks best. However, as a sentence grows in size, you should always use this technique.

Ending a Sentence

At the other end, the last words of a sentence are also emphasized. You can end a sentence with any word or structure you like, but there are some points to consider:

  • Prepositions: Ending sentences with them is fine, unless you can leave the preposition out without changing the meaning of the sentence. In some cases, you can move the preposition closer to the verb, and you should do that most of the times.
    • Where are you at? should become Where are you?
    • Did you pick that book up?  should become Did you pick up that book?
    • Then he threw up is fine and can’t be changed.
  • Linking verbs: Again, sometimes you must end a sentence with them, but it is recommended to find a way to avoid it. Ending with a linking verb makes the sentence seem unfinished, distorts rhythm and can be very confusing.
    • What is a linking verb? A verb that doesn’t contain action. Any form of to be, become or seem. If a verb can be replaced by one of these, it is also – in that context – a linking verb.
    • Do you know who the prince is? could be changed to Who is the prince?
    • It is the type of person I’ve always wanted to become should be changed to I’ve always wanted to become that type of person.

Between Start & End

Even though I said about start and end that they are both very important, what’s in between is of course the most important. It is the actual content, meaning or action. A strong beginning will help make this clear and draw the reader in, but before the sentence reaches its end it has to fulfil those promises.

  • Number of Elements: The number of examples, words or similar structures you use in a sentence or story has a meaning.
    • One: for power. The reader is focused on this particular word or example, and it is emphasized.
      • She was strong.
      • He bursts with energy.
    • Two: for comparison or contrast. The reader is given two equal components, and has to balance them in his head.
      • She was strong and smart.
      • He bursts with energy but stays calm.
    • Three: for completeness, wholeness or roundness. Three is the holy number, three makes a crowd. Using three parts often is stronger and gives more weight than using four or more.
      • She was strong, smart and adventurous.
      • He bursts with energy but stays calm and relaxed.
    • Four or more: only use this to list, inventory, compile or expand. A sentence can easily become cluttered and too much to take in when using four or more components.
      • She had it all: strong, smart, adventurous, friendly and even humorous.
      • Even when he bursts with energy he stays calm, relaxed, unimpressed, in control – whatever you want to call it.
  • Odd and Interesting Things: If you want to spice up your writing, use odd and interesting things next to each other. Write a clean, wonderful, imaginative sequence about the wonders of the night, and it will be predictable and maybe dull. Put a crime next to it where the thief only steals nail polish from the girls he attacks, and it becomes much more exciting.
  • Wait a minute, explain! Whenever you’ve written something, make yourself stop for a minute to explain the point and/or meaning of the sequence. If you can’t explain the point from the words only, you should rewrite or remove entirely. If you find words that don’t fit into the point and switch the focus, remove or replace.
  • Separation: Sometimes, we find that we have separated connected elements from each other. There are three very common types I will distinguish:
    • Infinitive: Placing words between to and its corresponding verb often creates confusion. ‘It is wrong to ever split an infinitive’
    • Split Verb: If a verb has a preposition that needs to be there, it is advised to put them as close to each other as possible. ‘He decided to split the chickens up’ can be rewritten to ‘He decided to split up the chickens’.
    • Pronouns + Antecedents: A pronoun references something. It’s only logical to put that something as close to it as possible. ‘He shot the ball as fast as possible, to his capabilities that is, which meant a lousy pace, to his teammate’. You get the idea, put those two together.

Exercises

The time has come! More exercises! Try to find an (improved) alternative for these lines:

  • He took it all for granted, wasted his life, never thought twice about his actions, couldn’t see his mistakes – he was destined for failure and rejection and a disgrace for his family he was.
  • ‘Can you show me which way to go in?’ Anna, the girl without a clue about what was happening, without any idea what being an adult was like, asked the man in black shorts and white T-shirt on the other side of the road.
  • He had died. Plain and simple. Yes, easy it was. For the better or not. Whether you like it or not. He lost. His life gone. His soul vaporized. His face crushed. Hit the ground hard, no way back it seemed.
  • Pedro! For days now, she, waking up every night trembling in fear, not knowing what he had become, wondered about Pedro’s whereabouts. His face, hands, feet, eyes, fingers, even his moustache she missed and dreamt about.

 

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