Category Archives: simple sentence

Turning around student achievement through structured writing

Several years ago, a high school principal investigated why so many of her students were failing.  After staff-wide research, the reason became clear:  bad writing, an inability to turn thoughts into sentences, paragraphs and essays.  A rigorous program of writing in every subject except math ensued, and within two years, final statewide exam scores rose 10 to 20 points.

Teachers began this new program by teaching a simple skill:  how to turn ideas into simple sentences.  When students could do that, they learned how put ideas into compound and complex sentences.

Students learned how to identify the main idea in a paragraph next, and then how to write a paragraph with a main idea.  Once paragraphs were mastered, it was on to essays, learning how to develop an introduction and controlling idea (thesis) and how to write body paragraphs to back up that controlling idea.  Students learned how to incorporate details into their writing, especially examples.

What students were taught was to think critically through structured writing—a point of view with facts to back it up.  To do it well takes planning and organizing ideas.  It is the kind of writing which the Common Core State Standards expects all high school students to master.

To find out more about this amazing success story at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, go to Peg Tyre’s article in The Atlantic.  Though it was published five years ago, the story–and the method to improve thinking through structured writing–is just as relevant today.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing-revolution/309090/

“Automatic pilot” sentences can reveal character

Do you have “automatic pilot” sentences, the kind you use most of the time when you aren’t thinking about grammar or effect, the kind you use when you are speaking off the cuff or writing to a friend?  Most of us do.

Do you know that these “automatic pilot” sentences reveal how we think?  Take a look at the following sentences and some possible interpretations.

Dogs bark.   Simple sentence, subject followed by verb, no modifiers.  Clear thinker?  Simplistic thinker?  Black and white thinker?

Some dogs bark, but not all dogs bark.  Compound sentence, simple grammar, modifiers, repetition of idea.  Clear thinker?  Simplistic thinker?  A thinker who hedges?  A thinker who repeats for emphasis?  A thinker who wants to prevent misunderstanding?

Although some dogs bark, not all dogs bark.  Complex sentence, less important idea stated first, modifiers, repetition of idea.  Complex thinker?  A thinker who hedges thoughts?  A thinker unwilling to impose views on others?

Although some dogs bark, not all dogs bark, and not all barking animals are dogs.  Compound-complex sentence, complex grammar, multiple qualifiers, repetition of idea, convoluted logic.  Complex thinker?  A thinker who hedges thoughts?  Muddled thinker?  An attorney?  A trickster?

When I talk to immigrants for whom English is not a first language, my automatic pilot sentences are short and usually simple or compound.  I use no contractions.  My vocabulary is basic unless I recognize that they are comfortable with English.  My sentences use active, not passive, verbs.  My sentences seem to show I am a simplistic thinker.

But when I speak to native born English speakers and especially to savvy adults, I speak in long and complicated automatic pilot sentences, like this one.  I use contractions and, unless I am talking to a child, an academic vocabulary.  My sentences seem to show that I am a complex, well educated thinker.

Take a look at an email you’ve written.  What do your automatic pilot sentences reveal about your mind?

Lockstep sentences, one after another, bore readers

What is a lockstep sentence?  Usually, it’s a sentence which begins with a subject (a noun or pronoun) and is followed by a predicate (a verb and a direct object, or a verb and a linked noun or adjective).  If there is a prepositional phrase, it comes at the end of the sentence.

Here is such a lockstep sentence pattern.

1  John watched the television news.  2  He saw an interesting discussion.  3  New York’s Congressman Newman debated Delaware’s Congressman Doe.  4  Congressman Newman took the conservative position and Congressman Doe took the liberal position.  5  “That’s a good discussion,” thought John.

Notice the sentence patterns:

1  subject, verb, direct object  (five words)

2  subject, verb, direct object  (five words)

3  subject, verb, direct object     (eight words)

4  subject, verb, direct object, conjunction, subject, verb, direct object  (13 words)

5  subject, verb, predicate noun, verb, subject (six words)

These five sentences follow a lockstep pattern.  They all begin with a subject.  Two have adjectives before the simple subject, but all start with the complete subject.  Each subject is followed by a verb which is followed by a direct object in four cases and a predicate noun in the other case.  The longer sentence is actually two simple sentences following the same pattern, but connected with a conjunction to form a compound sentence.

In this case, the lockstep sentences contain few words, adding to their tedium.

A lockstep sentence pattern needn’t be this particular pattern, but it is a pattern which repeats over and over, sentence after sentence.

For some writers, the pattern is a single subject and a compound predicate.  “I ate dinner and took a walk.  The night was warm but humid.  I stood under a tree and waited for the rain to stop.  Then I went home and drank hot tea.”

For other writers, the pattern is an adverb to start the sentence followed by a subject and a predicate.  “Playfully, my dog licked my ankle.  Then she walked to her mat.  There she scratched herself.  However, she heard thunder in the distance.  Immediately, she returned to my side.”

For some writers, the pattern is a series of complex sentences with the subordinate clause always coming after the independent clause.  “I stopped the car because a blue light flashed ahead.  Soon cars parted as a fire engine passed.  Then an ambulance wailed while I checked my GPS.”

What can a writer do to avoid lockstep patterns?

First, analyze your own writing.  See if you consistently use a pattern.

Next, as your write, be aware of your tendency to use that pattern.  Look over your work, and if you notice that pattern, change the sentences.  If you usually begin with a subject followed by a verb, start some sentences with prepositional phrases, adverbs or gerund phrases.  If you usually begin with an adverb, cross out half of them, and then cross out half the rest.  If you write mostly short sentences, turn some of them into complicated simple sentences or complex sentences with double the words.

Lockstep sentence patterns are like familiar car routes.  We become so comfortable using them that we don’t explore new ways of expressing ourselves.  But we should to keep our writing fresh and our readers engaged.

How to write clearly for future generations

Among the hardest materials for students to read today are the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution (Lexile scores 1350 and 1560 respectively). Because Thomas Jefferson knew future generations would be reading his words in the Declaration of Independence, he wrote them as carefully as possible in 1776.  Even so, they are difficult to understand by his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren’s generation.

Many reasons exist for this difficulty, including sentence structure, sentence length, relative pronouns, and vocabulary. I would like to analyze the first paragraph of the Declaration to see what we can learn from words Thomas Jefferson penned 240 years ago in order to improve our writing today.

Thomas Jefferson thinking about words to use in Declaration of Independence, with a modern-day child suggesting a word

Here is the Declaration’s original first paragraph:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

To begin, this paragraph is a single, 71-word sentence. We know that the more words a sentence contains, the harder it is to understand (unless the sentence is a list). If a sentence of 30 words is pushing it, a sentence of 71 words is beyond what most people can follow. Many working memories stop after the second clause.

Secondly, this 71-word sentence contains six clauses plus infinitive phrases and prepositional phrases. Three clauses in a single sentence are sometimes two too many for clear understanding. But six?

Another difficulty is the pronoun “which.” It is used three times to introduce three dependent clauses.

But perhaps the greatest problem to modern readers is the vocabulary. Many words are familiar words used in unfamiliar ways. For example, the fourth word, “course” is a word we use all the time today (a math course, the course of a river, of course), but the meaning used in the Declaration is “progress or advancement” which is no longer its primary meaning.

When “course” is combined with “events” to form the phrases “in the course of human events,” the meaning becomes more muddled. What if Jefferson had written, “When, during human history”? Wouldn’t those words have said the same thing yet made more sense? To us, yes. But Jefferson was writing the most formal document of his life.  He chose to use formal language—formal even for the 18th century.

What if Jefferson had written something like this instead?

Sometimes a group of people need to sever their political connections with another group of people and to become an independent country. When this happens, they should explain why they are separating.

My 32 words are not nearly as elegant as Jefferson’s, but to modern ears, they are easier to understand (39 fewer words; two sentences instead of one; one simple sentence and one complex sentence with just one dependent clause; and everyday vocabulary).

Think ahead 240 years to the year 2256. Will Americans then still find my words easy to understand? How can we write diaries, letters, memoirs or war stories  which will make sense to our descendants?

  • Above all, write clearly.
  • Write short sentences.
  • Write mostly simple sentences.
  • Limit the number of dependent clauses to one per sentence.
  • Make sure pronouns have clearly identified antecedents.
  • Use everyday vocabulary.

 

Use expanded sentences to add informality to writing

An expanded sentence is one that begins as a simple, compound or complex sentence but then adds additional information, sometimes with phrases and sometimes with clauses, mimicking the way we speak. Here are some examples.three examples of expanded sentences

In the past, writing was more formal than spoken language, and to a degree it still is, even in the US. While we say, “It’s me,” in formal writing we are expected to write, “It is I.” Most of us say “who” when we mean “whom” and say “hafta go” when we would write “have to go.” But in the late 20th century, writing became more informal. One example is that today the word “you” is allowed in essays.

What is happening? Modern-day writing is following the lead of spoken language, becoming more like it. When we speak, we often start with a simple idea (Gershwin wrote many songs), but then we add to those words as we are thinking (Gershwin wrote many songs, such as Summertime, I’ve Got Rhythm and Swanee, becoming the best song writer of the 1920’s—although Cole Porter fans might disagree).

The effect of expanded sentences is to create informal writing. The sentences sound friendly, not academic. These sentences are often easier to understand than complex sentences of the past with many subordinate ideas. They have an easy-going, relaxed quality to them which puts us at ease.

One way to practice writing these kinds of sentences is to type them on your computer and one by one change the words, keeping the grammar and flow but changing the meaning.expanded sentence practice

A caution:  An expanded sentence is not a compound sentence with several independent thought sadded on. (I went to the store, and I bought a candy bar, and I ate the candy bar, and it was delicious.)  It can include a compound sentence, the but add-ons vary in type.

It’s spring. Update your writing with some bright, extended sentences.

Analyzing simple, compound, complex and compound/complex sentences can improve writing

four declarative sentence types

Click on the image to enlarge it.

Most writing is done in declarative sentences.  But those declarative sentences can be broken down into four types:  simple, compound, complex and compound-complex.  Good writers use all four types.

With older students who know what simple, compound, complex and compound-complex sentences are, I ask them to identify each sentence in an essay.  I don’t do this for every essay, but occasionally it offers a student insight into his own writing.  It also suggests sentence types that are overused or not used enough.

Using the four kinds of sentences, the student identifies every sentence in his essay using tally marks.  Then we look at the results.

  • Students who have a majority of simple sentences might be writing (and thinking) too simply if the sentences are mostly short and uncomplicated. An abundance of clear yet, complicated simple sentences, on the other hand, shows a writer mastering sentence construction.

    • What is a complicated simple sentence? It might start with a phrase—a gerund phrase, an infinitive phrase or a prepositional phrase.  It might add a compound subject or predicate and include a direct object or predicate adjective.  It might delight with details such as appositives.  Words might be out of the typical order.  There is no one formula.
  • Students who have a majority of complex sentences might be writing in too complicated a manner, especially if the average number of words per sentence (we’ll discuss this in a future blog) is more than 20. A high mix of complicated simple sentences and complex sentences, with a few short simple sentences thrown in, almost like spices in a recipe, usually results in attractive writing.

    • Some students use complex sentences well but nearly always begin those sentences with the independent clauses. Turning some of those sentences around—starting with the subordinate conjunction—adds sentence variety without much effort.
  • Overuse of compound sentences can make a student’s writing sound childlike. So can overusing a single subject and a compound predicate.  If a student is aware that he tends to prefer these kinds of sentence formations, he can make changes as he writes or even before he writes a sentence.

    • Ask students who overuse compound sentences to circle all the “and,” “but” and “so” words in their sentences. Now ask them to relate the same ideas without using “and,” “but” or “so.”  Students are forced to imagine different sentence structures.
  • Compound-complex sentences generally are long. Occasionally, such sentences are fine, but a high mix of them usually makes for difficult reading.

    • Some compound-complex sentences are rambling, wordy sentences which should be cut into parts both for clarity and sophistication. Encourage the student to replace this kind of sentence with a complicated simple sentence and / or a complex sentence, not with a compound sentence.

We’ll discuss each of these sentence types in more detail in future blogs, but for now, let’s move on to my students’ favorite writing activity: math!