home :: 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:
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:
Hawthorne, Nathanial. "Tanglewood Porch." A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys. 1852.
Coordination and Subordination
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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 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:
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,
idea 2: use a noun phrase to rename something discussed in the main clause and begin a modifier with this phrase. For example,
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,
"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:
idea 4: use a prepositional phrase. Prepositions such as "without," "with," "after," and "before" establish spatial, temporal, or logical relationships between ideas. For example,
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:
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.
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:
Compare the above paragraph with the following one that uses a variety of sentence styles and sentence length:
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.
Consider the way subordinating conjunctions and sentences adverbs break up the subject first pattern in the following paragraph:
Hawthorne, Nathanial. "Chiefly About War Matters by a Reasonable Man."
1. Coordination & subordination
2. Periodic sentences
3. Loose sentences
4. Sentence length
5. Transitional expressions