Combine sentences to improve the number of words per sentence and to improve sentence structure.

In addition to eliminating sentences, combining two or more sentences usually reduces the number of total words in an essay; it also reduces the number of sentences. This causes the number of words per sentence to rise slightly.

I ask students to combine sentences without using “and,” “but,” and “so” to avoid adding more compound sentences to the essay. Students can easily combine sentences, but they cannot easily combine them without using coordinating conjunctions. I work with students on using subordinate conjunctions, relative pronouns, and gerund and participle phrases.

Combining sentences in an essay by a six grader.

Here are revisions that combine sentences about a swim meet by a sixth grader:

Students start by figuring out the number of words in each sentence and writing those numbers in the margins of their essays next to the sentences. Students look for small numbers indicating short sentences. Usually, but not always, the short sentences need to be next to each other in order to combine them. Always they need to be in the same paragraph.

When the student finds a short sentence, he reads nearby sentences to see if the two sentences can be combined. Not all neighboring sentences can be combined. They need to be close in topic, or show some kind of relationship—a cause and effect, a sequence, or a dialog by the same person, for example. If the sentences seem related, the students and I discuss how they could be combined. Beginning writing students almost always suggest “and,” “but” and “so,” since these are the connecting words they normally use (and the words their school teachers suggest).

When I suggest alternatives, I need to keep in mind what will sound normal to a student of a particular age. What improvements I can suggest to a younger student, or to an ESL student are often more limited than what I can suggest to an older or more widely read student.

“Sometimes my little sister asks a silly question. I say a silly answer and she laughs at me.” How can these eight and ten-word sentences, respectively, be combined? I might suggest adding the word “when” after the word “sometimes.” “Sometimes when my little sister asks a silly question, I say a silly answer and she laughs at me.” For a younger student, combining a simple sentence with a compound sentence to form a complex-compound sentence is a big improvement in sentence structure. It also produces a 19-word sentence that sounds normal to a third grader’s ear.

How about this example? “First, snowball fighting. We had the fight in our front yard. I was the one who made perfectly round snowballs.” The third-grader who wrote this fragment followed by two tiny sentences changed them to “First, my brothers and I had a snowball fight in our front yard where I made perfectly round snowballs.”

In our next blog we’ll talk about another way to revise sentences: adding more details in order to increase the number of words per sentence and to improve sentence structure.

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