Category Archives: sentence structure

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.

Copying sentence patterns can lead to good writing

For the most part, sentence structure should be invisible, like the skeleton of a person.  It’s the message that the sentences tell, not the structure of the sentences, that we should focus on when reading.

girl writing and thinkingMost children write sentences in predictable similar patterns:  a subject followed by a predicate connected by a coordinating conjunction to another subject and predicate.  If there are prepositional phrases, they go at the end.  My dog ran, so I chased him up the street.

How to shake up the monotony of children’s sentences is challenging.  One way to do this is to have students copy sentence patterns while using their own words.

For example, see how the sentences below, taken from an article on Neptune*, can be used to write a paragraph about Disney World.

Dark, cold and whipped by supersonic winds, Neptune is the last of the hydrogen and helium gas giants in our solar system.

Bright, crowded and filled with happy children, Disney World is my favorite place in the warm and sunny southern state of Florida.

It is invisible to the naked eye because of its extreme distance from Earth.

It is visited by millions because of its big airport in Orlando.

Neptune’s atmosphere extends to great depths, gradually merging into water and other melted ices.

Disney World’s crowds come from far away, even traveling from Brazil and other South American countries.

In 1989, Voyager 2 tracked a large, oval-shaped, dark storm in Neptune’s southern hemisphere, a “Great Dark Spot” that was large enough to contain the entire Earth.

In 2016 I visited the tall, white-painted building in the Magic Kingdom’s heart, “Cinderella’s Castle” that was big enough to contain my whole fourth grade.

Triton is extremely cold.

Disney World is really wonderful.

With first or second graders, I choose sentence patterns that are short and easy to duplicate.  If I am teaching parts of speech, I might combine a writing lesson with a grammar lesson.  I model how to write sentences using other sentences as patterns before I ask students to try writing on their own.

With older students, we might discuss the various ways the sentences begin (in the examples above, with adjectives, a pronoun, a possessive noun, a prepositional phrase and a noun).  We might count words and discuss how differing lengths add variety (22, 14, 14, 28 and 4 above).  We analyze whether sentences are simple, compound or complex.  (Four of the examples above are simple and one is complex.)

If students keep a writing notebook, one section could be a collection of sentences they have patterned.  Later, when they are writing, I encourage them to use their notebook fo sentence structure ideas.

Modeling new sentences on given sentence patterns can be a useful writing homework assignment.

* NASA.gov, adapted by Newsela staff, https://newsela.com/articles/lib-nasa-neptune-overview/id/22033/

Use a diagram to “see” the structure of the new SAT essay

When working with students learning how to write an essay for the new SAT exam, I draw diagrams of an essay pattern they can follow. The diagram acts as a prewriting organizer.  It shows students an overall perspective of what they must write.  Here is a diagram that is easy to follow yet leads to an effective SAT essay.

diagram-of-sat-essayThis diagram separates the persuasive techniques from the summary.  In the SAT workbooks, the best essay samples entwine the summary and the persuasive techniques, a more sophisticated pattern to follow.

What is important is to cover all three of the criteria which will be judged:  1) clearly showing that you understand what the essay prompt is all about (the summary), 2) recognizing and analyzing persuasive techniques, and 3) doing all this using excellent English (perfect  grammar, a variety of sentence patterns, advanced vocabulary and–most difficult of all–your own voice).

When should I use a comma?

“When should I use a comma?” is the question about writing I am asked  more than any other.

student thinking about what to write

Below are the rules.  But experts disagree on many of them, and good writers ignore some of the rules.  If you are a student, ask your teacher what she expects.  Language is always changing, and that includes rules for writing language.  In general, as American English has become more informal, fewer commas are used today than in the past.

  • The rule: In a series of three (red, white, and blue), use two commas.  The practice:  Many people skip the comma before the word “and.”  They think, if I don’t need a comma between “white and blue,” why do I need one for “red, white and blue”?
  • The rule: In a compound sentence, a comma goes after the first clause.  (I like snow, so I like winter sports.)  In practice:  If the clauses are short, most good writers skip the comma if the meaning is clear.  If the clauses are long, they use the comma.
  • The rule: Use a comma after a stand-alone adverb which starts the sentence.  (First, let me eat.  Then, we can talk.)  The practice:  Sometimes the comma is used, but many times it is not if the meaning is clear.
  • The rule: When a dependent clause starts a sentence, end that clause with a comma before writing the independent clause.  (The previous sentence is an example of that.)  The practice:  Good writers follow this rule.  What if the first clause is the independent clause?  No comma is needed.  Students make lots of mistakes with this rule, especially when using the word “because.”
  • The rule: When you start a sentence with “because,” you cannot put a period at the end of that clause.  Instead, you must end that clause with a comma and continue the sentence with an independent clause.  The practice:  Teachers tell students they can’t start sentences with “because” to avoid students’ writing fragments.   Of course, you can start a sentence with almost any word, including “because,” if you use correct sentence structure and punctuation.
  • The rule: Appositives require commas before and after.  (My teacher, Mrs. Smith, gives lots of homework.)  If an appositive ends the sentence, then the “after” comma becomes a period.  The practice:  Commas are often not used with appositives.
  • The rule: The identity of the person speaking a direct quote needs to be set off with a comma.  (Mom said, “Eat your dinner.”  “Eat your dinner,” Mom said.)  If the spoken words end with a question mark or exclamation point, then the comma is not used.  (“Look!” said Mom.  “Where?” I asked.)  The practice:  Most good writers use this rule.  If the quote is indirect, commas might or might not be needed.  (Eat your dinner, my mother said.  I said I would.)
  • The rule: Between cities, states and countries commas are needed, but not between states and zip codes.  The practice:  This rule is used.
  • The rule: Between days of the week, dates, and years, commas are needed.  (My vacation stopped on Saturday, August 13, 2016, when I returned home.)  Notice that if the date does not end the sentence, a comma is required after the date or year.   The practice:  This rule is followed by good writers.
  • The rule:  If just a month and year are used, no comma is required.  (He graduated in May 2016.)  The practice:  This rule is generally used, but some grammar books require a comma in the last sentence.  (He graduated in May, 2016).
  • The rule: If “yes” or “no” begin a sentence, those words are followed by a comma.  (Yes, I can hear you.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: When speaking directly to someone, a comma is used before or after the person’s name.  (Lou, come here.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: To offset a negative phrase, commas are used before and after.  (I saw Annushka, not Sei, at the movies.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: For house numbers, no comma is needed.  But for other numbers of a thousand or more, commas are needed to separate every three numerals beginning from the right or decimal point.  The practice:  This rule is followed.

If you are using a grammar book as a reference, check the date.  Older versions require more commas.  If you are using a source from outside the US (English booklets prepared by a foreign company, for example), more commas will be required.  If you are a high school or college student, ask your teacher which style book he or she will use to grade your work and follow that style book’s rules.

How to be better understood on the web

Readers from the US, Pakistan, India, Australia, Georgia and Norway have visited this blog today.  I assume many of them are not native speakers of English.

How do I (and you) write for an international audience so that our writing is clear?

  • Eliminate idioms. Idioms don’t easily shift from one culture to another.  They might be taken as literal by people who have learned English as a second or third language.

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

  • Use a simplified vocabulary. Even if you know many synonyms, stick to common words, not rare ones.
  • Stick to standard English. Eliminate dialects or colloquiums.
  • Eliminate texting shortcuts. GTG is far from universal.
  • Keep your grammar simple. If you use complex sentences, limit yourself to one dependent clause per sentence.  Make sure pronoun antecedents are easy to figure out.  If they aren’t, repeat the nouns.
  • Use short sentences. Give yourself an upper word limit per sentence of 15 to 20 words.
  • Use American spelling.  It is the most common spelling of English words used on the web.
  • Assume your readers might not be fluent in English. Assume they might be ignorant of nuances of language that you take for granted.  Their English vocabularies might be rudimentary or restricted to one field of study.  Write accordingly.
  • Eliminate cultural bias. Pay attention to the connotations or double meanings of words.
  • Eliminate allusions.  So many references which well educated Americans use in writing are to the Bible, to Shakespeare or to pop songs.  Many readers will not understand them.
  • Use emojis.  Emojis can say in one picture what takes many words.

“Ten things good writers do”

Good advice is good advice.  And so I am repeating “Ten things good writers do…” from a blog by Dr. Timothy Shanahan, a literacy expert, whose weekly blog can be accessed at http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/  The words in boldface are Dr. Shanahan’s ideas.

student thinking about what to writeGood writers make a good first impression. They rewrite their introductions and first pages many times because they know if those words don’t grab a reader, the reader will put down that piece of writing and move on. But you don’t have to be a professional writer to hook a reader in the first sentence or two.  Read this sentence by a fifth grader:

In 34 more days, I, Robert Sir Awesome the Third, am going to turn eleven.  Bha ha ha!

Or notice these introductory sentences by another fifth grader:

In a famous World Series, a slugger walked up to bat.  With the count 2-2, the slugger pointed two fingers to the bleachers in left-center field.  What happened next became a legend when the slugger walloped a moonshot into left-center field.  Home Run! 

Perplexed student writingGood writers make their endings strong, too. Good writers know how to make a reader smile or nod with satisfaction at the end of a piece of writing.

Notice how this fifth grader ends a narrative about the ordinary day he expected.

I was wrong in the morning thinking it was an ordinary day; it turned out to be a great day.

Or notice this ending paragraph by a fourth grader.

Together, my camera, my computer and I can make a movie.  You can too!  If you aren’t perfect, keep trying.  Don’t give up.  I wasn’t perfect either when I started.

boy on stool writingGood writers organize their articles and stories so that readers can follow along without getting lost or confused. Good writers use topic sentences that tell the reader what to expect. They use transition words like “first,” “next,” and “finally.” Or they use chronological order, including time words such as “in the morning,” and “later that same day.”  Notice how this first grader began a fairy tale using transitions.

Once upon a time Little Red Riding Hood was carrying a basket of blueberry muffins and walked into the woods to her grandmother’s house.  And then she spotted a wolf.

child writing in sleeping bag

Good writers rewrite.  In fact, they expect to rewrite, knowing that good writing becomes that way by improving verbs, by streamlining ideas, and by varying sentence beginnings, lengths and types.  See how this third grader revised part of an essay on sperm whales by adding more details.

Sperm whales, who dive up to two miles, are the deepest diving warm-blooded mammals on the planet.  They have the biggest brains of any animal, living and extinct.  Ridges and a triangular hump replace a dorsal fin on one third of their backs.  Two thirds of their colossal bodies look like a rectangle and one third of the body is the head.

boy writing on a window benchGood writers don’t just tell something, they show it. In informational essays, good writers give examples to show what they mean. In narratives, good writers show a character acting, such as his hand wiping away a tear, or his foot tapping, so that the reader can judge for herself if a character is sad or excited. Here is how a kindergartener showed a character.

Linus is squatting down to feel the snow. . . .Then he found sticky snow to make his snow ball out of. . . .While he was working he stuck his tongue out.

girl with pony tail on floor writingGood writers use sentences that are varied and interesting. They vary the verbs in sentences, begin sentences with different words and different parts of speech and write some long sentences and some short sentences.  Notice how this sixth grader starts an essay with a 20-word sentence followed by a six-word sentence.  He starts with a prepositional phrase but the next sentence begins with an adverb.

During Winter Break, my sister and I always vote to visit cool areas where we can ski, such as Colorado.  However, my dad rejects the idea.

girl writing and thinkingGood writers write for the ear, not the eye. Good writers read their writing aloud and listen for ideas that are not clear. If characters are speaking, good writers make characters dialog sound different from one another. Since most people don’t talk in complete sentences, good writers have their characters speak naturally, even if that breaks rules of grammar.  Notice how a second grader uses dialog to explain what a book is about.

One hot summer day Nate the great was in his garden weeding when Oliver the pest came over.  “I have lost a weed,” said Oliver.  “No problem,” said Nate the Great.  “You may have all of my weeds.”

Child writingGood writers elaborate; they try to share a lot of information and detail. Good writers provide lots of detail—numbers, dates, seasons, days of the week, proper nouns, dialog, sensory information, and examples. Good writers put themselves in the shoes of the reader and provide the information that a reader needs even if the writer already understands it. See how that same second grader uses detail.

A long time ago a family lived in a tiny house on a farm in Texas with a very wide field with wheat and corn.  On the farm they raised animals too.  For example, they raised cows, sheep, chickens, a pig and a dog.

3rd grader writing an essay.Good writers get their facts right, even when they are writing fiction. In passages about science or social studies, good writers use the proper vocabulary. They check their facts online or by talking to experts.  They go over their writing to be sure names are consistent and numbers are accurate.  Read how a first grader uses scientific facts which she researched.

The Indian or Asian Elephant is one of the important animals in Asia, living in India, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.  The elephant has brown or gray wrinkled skin.  Ivory tusks grow on elephants.  They help dig roots and are used against predators.

Student writing and thinkingGood writers should know when to quit. Good writing is concise writing. The writer needs to trust that the reader will understand the first time if the writing is clear enough, so repetition isn’t necessary. And that’s why I am going to stop now.  –Mrs. K