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Sentence Variety

Our thoughts, and the mood behind our thoughts, can be quick and inspired, rambling and reflective, inquisitive and full of wonder, or terse and even irritable. To reflect this variety of thought, our sentences should also be varied.  Using sentence structures effectively to reflect our thoughts and feelings takes practice and and appreciation of how form relates to perception. Take a look at the following passage by Nathanial Hawthorne from "Tanglewood Porch." Notice how he varies his sentences to create a distinctive mood:

BENEATH the porch of the country-seat called Tanglewood, one fine autumnal morning, was assembled a merry party of little folks, with a tall youth in the midst of them. They had planned a nutting expedition, and were impatiently waiting for the mists to roll up the hill-slopes, and for the sun to pour the warmth of the Indian summer over the fields and pastures, and into the nooks of the many-colored woods. There was a prospect of as fine a day as ever gladdened the aspect of this beautiful and comfortable world. As yet, however, the morning mist filled up the whole length and breadth of the valley, above which, on a gently sloping eminence, the mansion stood. (Hawthorne)

Hawthorne uses a variety of sentence forms in this paragraph— periodic and loose sentences, complex sentences, compound sentences. His thoughts ebb and flow, drawing the reader into the scene.  In this module, students will learn to use the techniques below to create sentence variety in their writing, and to use sentence variety effectively to communicate their thoughts to a reader:

  • coordination and subordination
  • cumulative sentences
  • length
  • transitional expressions
  • colons & semicolons

 

 

Hawthorne, Nathanial. "Tanglewood Porch." A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys. 1852.

Coordination and Subordination

Coordination:

Coordination between clauses and between sentence verbs, for example with the coordinating conjunctions "and" and "so," allows writers to show thoughts or actions which follow one another, one by one.  Notice how coordination is used in the following passage from Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice, to show a quick succession of events:

She danced next with an officer, and had the refreshment of talking of Wickham, and of hearing that he was universally liked. When those dances were over she returned to Charlotte Lucas, and was in conversation with her, when she found herself suddenly addressed by Mr. Darcy, who took her so much by surprise in his application for her hand, that, without knowing what she did, she accepted him. He walked away again immediately, and she was left to fret over her own want of presence of mind; Charlotte tried to console her.

Subordination:

Allows writers to show the connections between thoughts and events, the twists and turns of cause and effect, general and specific versions of experience, or the relationships of events in time, for example. Take a look at the same passage from Pride and Prejudice used above, this time noticing the subordinating conjunctions Austen uses to show the way events and thoughts are interconnected:

She danced next with an officer, and had the refreshment of talking of Wickham, and of hearing that he was universally liked. When those dances were over she returned to Charlotte Lucas, and was in conversation with her, when she found herself suddenly addressed by Mr. Darcy, who took her so much by surprise in his application for her hand, that, without knowing what she did, she accepted him. He walked away again immediately, and she was left to fret over her own want of presence of mind; Charlotte tried to console her. (Austen)

Subordinate clauses tend to slow down the forward momentum of actions or a sequence of ideas.  They ask a reader to reflect on an idea or even in greater depth before moving on.  Consider the following description of breakfast preparations in Nathanial Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables, noticing how the subordinate clauses slow down the actions and elaborate on the scene:

By way of contributing what grace she could, Phoebe gathered some roses and a few other flowers, possessing either scent or beauty, and arranged them in a glass pitcher, which, having long ago lost its handle, was so much the fitter for a flower-vase. The early sunshine--as fresh as that which peeped into Eve's bower, while she and Adam sat at breakfast there--came twinkling through the branches of the pear-tree, and fell quite across the table. All was now ready. There were chairs and plates for three. A chair and plate for Hepzibah,--the same for Phoebe,--but what other guest did her cousin look for? (Hawthorne)

In addition to subordinate clauses, Hawthorne uses phrases to elaborate on the scene and slow the forward action; how to use phrases is discussed in the sections on periodic and loose sentences.

 

How to Use Coordination and Subordination for Variety:

For more information on writing sentences using coordination and subordination, please read the lesson in the Coordination & Subordination module.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813.
Hawthorne, Nathanial. The House of Seven Gables. 1851.

Periodic Sentences:

Sometimes writers want to create suspense in writing, or set the stage for an action to occur. Adding phrases and/or subordinate clauses to the front of a sentence allows us to create this effect.  The reader looks forward to the fulfillment of an expectation, as in the following sentences:

Without hesitating or looking back at his mom, Jason got on the bus.

Shortly after Strong had quitted the room, and whilst Mr. Pen, greatly irate at his downfall in the waltz, which made him look ridiculous in the eyes of the nation, and by Miss Amory's behavior to him, which had still further insulted his dignity, was endeavoring to get some coolness of body and temper by looking out of the window towards the sea, which was sparkling in the distance, and murmuring in a wonderful calm,—whilst he was really trying to compose himself, and owning to himself, perhaps that he had acted in a very absurd and peevish manner during the night,  —he felt a hand on his shoulder . . . (Thackeray)

The second sentence is an extreme example, being about the length of a paragraph, but it is still correct grammar.  The sentence begins with a series of subordinate clauses and phrases that create the background information—the frame of mind of the main character—for the action that will occur:f "he felt a hand on his shoulder."

Use periodic sentences infrequently in your writing.  They are rarely used in speech, as English speakers typically prefer the loose sentence style, and so periodic sentences stand out in your writing.

 

How to Write a Periodic Sentence:

Several techniques for creating modifiers are discussed in the next section on "Loose Sentences."  These techniques are the same for modifiers used at the beginning of a sentence.  Once you learn the techniques, you can decide on the most effective placement.

 

Thackeray, William Makepeace. The History of Pendennis. 1848.

Loose Sentences

Loose sentences are the opposite of periodic sentences: the main clause appears at the beginning of the sentence, and then modifying phrases and clauses are tacked onto the end of the sentence, causing the reader to refer back to the main point.  Loose sentences are common in speech in English, and so in written texts, loose sentences are easy for readers to follow.  Too many loose sentences in a row, however, can get boring, so as always, it is important to vary your patterns. Below are examples of loose sentences:

I betook myself away, and wandered up and down, like an exorcised spirit that had been driven from its old haunts, after a mighty struggle. (Hawthorne, A Blithedale Romance)

He was a brother of Mrs. Cowperwood's—Seneca Davis by name—solid, unctuous, five feet ten in height, with a big, round body, a round, smooth head rather bald, a clear, ruddy complexion, blue eyes, and what little hair he had of a sandy hue. He was exceedingly well dressed according to standards prevailing in those days, indulging in flowered waistcoats, long, light-colored frock-coats, and the invariable (for a fairly prosperous man) high hat. (Dreiser, The Financier)

How to Create a Loose Sentence:

idea 1: repeat a word that was mentioned in the main clause as the beginning of a modifying phrase.  For example,

She had a wonderful sense of humor, a humor that was a bit satirical and a bit dry at times, so that sometimes I would not get that she was telling a joke until a minute or two after she told it.

idea 2: use a noun phrase to rename something discussed in the main clause and begin a modifier with this phrase. For example,

We receive dozens of catalogs every week from companies like Pottery Barn, Garnet Hill, J.C. Penney, Bed Bath and Beyond, Hold Everything, etc.—any store that ever received a penny of our money.

idea 3: use a verbal phrase.  A verbal phrase includes a verb form—a verb ending in -ing or -ed that is not the sentence verb, for example, "running very fast" or "confused by the instructions." We use verbal phrases to indicate simultaneous actions. The sentence verb in the main clause declares the action of the sentence; verbal phrases add detail about what is happening during this action, for example,

She walked out the front door, hoping that today would be a better day than yesterday.

"Hoping" happens while she walks out the door.  It is useful to note that "ing" verbals indicate an action that is being performed by the subject, and "ed" verbals indicate an action that happens to the subject.  "Haunted," for example, suggests that some outside force is acting upon the subject, a memory, perhaps, as in the following sentence:

Slowly, Gabe walked up to the front of the class to give his presentation, haunted by the memory of his last, humiliating speech when he forgot half the material.

idea 4: use a prepositional phrase. Prepositions such as "without," "with," "after," and "before" establish spatial, temporal, or logical relationships between ideas.  For example,

He walked out the front door without looking back.

She believed in being honest above all else.

We cleaned the house before picking up mom at the airport.

idea 5: use a combination of phrases. Do not feel that you need to stop at one phrase if you have more to say.  Just remember, however, that the more space you devote to a topic, the more you tell your reader that it is important. Here is an example of a  loose sentence by Faulkner from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

[A writer] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.

Notice that Faulkner uses a verbal phrase ("leaving . . . "), and the repetition of a key word ("truths . . . ") to begin a phrase.  Also note that the repetition is of a key word in the first modifying phrase rather than the main clause.  This technique is very effective for refining ideas.

 

 

Dreiser, Theodore. The Financier. 1912.
Hawthorne, Nathanial. The Blithedale Romance. 1852

Vary Length & Style

Varying the length and style of sentences keeps readers awake.  It is easy for readers get familiar with a sentence pattern, so familiar that they start falling asleep, as when one gets sleepy driving down an unvarying freeway late at night. One pattern in particular—the simple sentence presented with few (or no) modifying phrases—can get really boring, as in the following example:

John woke up at 6:00 a.m. He remembered that today was the day of his big meeting.  His mood took a turn for the worse. John dressed slowly. He ate breakfast without appetite. He went to work full of dread.

Compare the above paragraph with the following one that uses a variety of sentence styles and sentence length:

John woke at 6:00 a.m. Suddenly, he remembered that today was the day of his big meeting, the meeting that would decide if the company died or became successful beyond imagination.  His mood took a turn for the worse.  He dressed slowly and ate breakfast without any appetite.  Hesitating at the door, his heart full of dread, he summoned his courage and went to work.

The second paragraph ebbs and flows.  The modifying phrases allow the author to add information that fills in the scene, either showing the subject's thoughts, providing background information, or suggesting simultaneous actions. And the short sentences, such as "John woke at 6:00 a.m." punctuate the sentence, as a drummer punctuates a drum rhythm.

 

Use Transitional Expressions

Transitional expressions signify the relation between ideas.  They can also help writers vary the opening structures of sentences.  Some useful transitional expressions are shown below.  For more information, explore the module on subordination.

Subordinating Conjunctions:

cause: because, as, since, so that
concession: although, though, even though, as though
condition: even though, though, although, provided that, as long as, if, even if, unless
time: after, as soon as, as long as, before, whenever, while, as, when

Sentence Adverbs:

effect: consequently,
exception: however, nevertheless, on the other hand, even though, despite, regardless
addition: in addition,
similarity: accordingly, indeed, similarly, in the same way, thus
exemplification: for instance, for example,
amplification: what is more, moreover
summary: in sum, on the whole
time
: meanwhile, shortly, after all, afterward, eventually, consequently, first, second, firstly, in the first place

Consider the way subordinating conjunctions and sentences adverbs break up the subject first pattern in the following paragraph:

He looked at us, in the first place, with keen and somewhat guarded eyes, as if it were not his practice to vouchsafe any great warmth of greeting, except upon sure ground of observation. Soon, however, his look grew kindly and genial (not that it had ever been in the least degree repulsive, but only reserved), and Leutze allowed us to gaze at the cartoon of his great fresco, and talked about it unaffectedly, as only a man of true genius can speak of his own works. Meanwhile the noble design spoke for itself upon the wall. (Hawthorne, "Chiefly About War Matters")

 

Hawthorne, Nathanial. "Chiefly About War Matters by a Reasonable Man."

 

 

Objectives

1. Coordination & subordination

2. Periodic sentences

3. Loose sentences

4. Sentence length

5. Transitional expressions

 

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