Category Archives: sentence structure

What percent of your sentences should be compound sentences?

I came across an intriguing statistic in a book* for teachers of writing.  A study of 20 well known writers, including Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, showed they used compound sentences no more than nine percent of the time.

Or said another way, these classic American writers wrote simple and complex sentences more than 90 percent of the time.

Ever since, I have told my students to strive for a majority of complicated simple sentences.  An uncomplicated simple sentence is good from time to time, especially after a long, complicated simple sentence or a long complex sentence.  But too many uncomplicated simple sentences make writing seem childish.

What is an uncomplicated simple sentence?  All the sentences in this paragraph are.  What is a complicated simple sentence?  All the other sentences in this blog except for the second sentence are.

Often you can tell an uncomplicated simple sentence by its length.  It’s short, usually fewer than ten words.

*Notes Toward a New Rhetoric:  Six Essays for Teachers by Francis Christensen, 1967.

Savoring great sentences

Good writers try to make their sentence structure invisible so that we readers are 100% engrossed in the meaning of the writing without being distracted by the grammar.  But when I read really good writing, I go back to analyze why it seems so effortless, so perfect.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Sometimes I find incredible sentences.  Here is one of my favorite cumulative sentences, jotted down many years ago, its source now unknown to me.

“He stood at the top of the stairs and watched me, I waiting for him to call me up, he hesitating to come down, his lips nervous with the suggestion of a smile, mine asking whether the smile meant come, or go away.”

Isn’t that a great sentence?  It contains 43 words.  Usually 43-word sentences are hard to follow unless they are a list.  But this simple sentence is easy to follow.  Why?

It starts with an independent clause using all single-syllable words:  a subject (he) and two verbs (stood and watched).  Next are two phrases with parallel ideas about the two people (I and he) expressed in parallel grammar (I waiting, he hesitating).  The last two lines are also parallel ideas expressed in similar ways.  The first starts with “his lips,” and the second starts with the pronoun, “mine,” referring to her lips.

Adding to the clarity of this long sentence are the organic transitions.  The first line introduces the two people, “he” and “me”; the second line uses “I,” “him” and “me”; the third uses “he”; the fourth uses “his”; and the fifth uses “mine.”

Also adding to the sentence’s goodness is the use of “up” and “down” to create a visual image of the situation.  In the independent clause we learn a male is at the top of the stairs; in the next phrase we learn that another person is waiting to be called up by him; in the next line the word “down” is used.

Another organic transition is his “lips” and his “smile”; in the last line the word “smile” is repeated.

And finally, there are the last three words.  “Or go away” comes as a surprise.  Wait!  Did I understand this right? the reader asks, going back and re-evaluating what the sentence might really mean.  You have been bewitched by a master writer.

Are you a sentence saver?  If so, you must be a writer.

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?

If it matters, put it last

When most people talk, they make their point, pause, reconsider it, and add a bit more.  They ramble.  For example,

  • I went to the store this morning, and bought some coffee, but not my usual brand–they were out of that–but you know, I am glad I  did because I like the new brand better.

But when good writers write, they consider their sentence structure carefully, naming their most important information last for emphasis.  For example,

  • Grandpa watched the fly flit from lamp to chair to table, chuckling as the curious insect enjoyed a balmy summer flight before Grandpa smashed it dead.

If you write a compound sentence, with clauses connected by the coordinating conjunction “and,” you lose the opportunity for most end of sentence emphasis.  That is because “and” connects clauses of equal weight.  Even so, whatever is said in the second clause gains a slight weight just because it comes last.

If you change the “and” to “but,” a stronger end of sentence emphasis emerges.  That is because a clause after the conjunction “but”  either qualifies or contradicts the previous clause, thereby having the final word.  For example,

  • I ate the sandwich Mom prepared, but first I removed the cheese.

If you write a complex sentence, you write an independent clause and a dependent (subordinate clause).  The information in the independent clause is always more significant because an independent clause is more significant than a dependent clause.  Even so, whichever clause is written last in the sentence gains additional emphasis simply because it comes last.

Abraham Lincoln used this end-of-sentence emphasis to his advantage when he wrote his “Gettysburg Address.”  His uppermost thought throughout the speech was that the the US democracy must survive.  Notice how he emphasizes this thought in the last few words of his last sentence:

  • “. . .that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Many poems place great emphasis on the last words.  Notice how important–and thought provoking–is the emphasis on the last word in “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.

  • Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

Jane Austen’s opening sentence in Pride and Prejudice, like the punchline of so many jokes, uses the last word for irony and humor:

  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

To write better, consider your point and make it the last word.

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.

Show writers how important first sentences are

The first sentence of a story can lure readers in, like a wiggly worm on a fishing hook.  Or the first sentence can cause readers to pound the snooze button.

How can you show students how important first sentences are?

Here’s one way:

  • Show students a single drawing or photo in which some kind of human or animal action is going on. It could be the first page of a picture book (if so, cover up the words), a sports photo from a magazine, or something you’ve downloaded.  Try to find a picture which is clearly focused on one or two characters and without a lot of distracting background.Some creative sentence options.
  • Ask the students to write the first sentence of a story about the events in the picture. (No, you are not going to write the whole story.  No, I can’t offer any help.)  Let students muddle through how to approach the writing.  If they make a tentative suggestion, wanting your approval, affirm their suggestion, however good or bad you think it is.
  • Next, tell them to write another first sentence for the same picture, but this time they are to start the sentence with a direct quote. It could be someone speaking aloud or someone musing.
  • Next, tell them to write another first sentence for the same picture, this time focusing on descriptive detail. The weather, clothing, posture, the look on someone’s face—any details which seem noteworthy are okay to write about.
  • Now tell them to write still another first sentence, focusing on the emotions of a person or animal in the picture.
  • Now write a sentence focusing on using specific vocabulary, especially specific verbs.

That gives you and the students several sentences to evaluate.

  • Ask the students to read aloud each of their sentences.
  • Ask which one seems the weakest or least alluring. If there are two somewhat bad sentences, that is fine.  Ask the students to identify why those sentences seem not as good as the others.
  • Ask which sentence seems the best. If the students think one, two or three are superior, ask why.
  • Go slowly, offering the students plenty of time to consider and reconsider their choices and reasons. Evaluating takes time.  Accept all responses.
  • Now, ask the students to take the best elements of the good sentences and combine them into one final sentence.
  • Ask them to read that sentence aloud, and to explain why they chose particular elements to include.

Lastly, ask the students what they have learned about writing from this exercise.