Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Writing with Sentence Variety

Note: This post goes over some of the points covered in our presentation at the National Conference of Teachers of English this past Saturday.

Sentence fluency has traditionally been a difficult quality to define and to teach. If you know some basics, however, it's actually rather easy to apply to your own writing -- and honestly, good writers (and readers) do much of this automatically.

Sentence Fluency:
1. Use a variety of sentence lengths: short ones for building tension, longer ones for explanations. Combining the two types creates a rhythm and flow to your writing, invaluable for keeping the attention of your readers.
2. Use a variety of sentence types: there are several different ways to achieve this, but my current favorite resource is Harry R. Noden's book Image Grammar.

Harry Noden's Five Basic Brush Strokes:
1. The participle/participial phrase: Lounging lazily, the cat watched the mouse.
2. The absolute: Tail switching, the cat watched the mouse.
3. The appositive: The cat, an insipid lounger, watched the mouse.
4. Adjectives shifted out of order: The cat, indolent and sleek, watched the mouse.
5. Action verbs: Surveying his domain, the cat examined each food offering.

These are but five of many variations, but simply being aware of alternative formats to that most basic sentence structure -- Subject + Verb -- can make all the difference in your writing.


Anthony said...


Amber Lynn Argyle said...

Agreed. My favorite is the action verb. Gives a sentence more punch, as I believe sentence number five uses a participial phrase the same as in 1. You can see how watched is a weaker/less descriptive verb than examined.

Alex Moore said...

@Amber: thank you for the comment. the point of sentence number five was simply to advocate the use action verbs, whether used as verb participles (as in a present participle like both 1 & 5 sentences do) or as simple or compound predicates. thanks for stopping by!

inlandempiregirl said...

I would love to see this workshop! Perhaps you three should do it at the spring conference. It sounds like the trip was great. See you later in the week.

Dal Jeanis said...

That example's not an absolute, since "Tail switching" modifies the subject "cat".

An absolute phrase modifies the entire sentence or situation, such as -

The bird having left, the cat watched the mouse.

Alex Moore said...

@dal jeanis: you are absolutely correct. An absolute modifies or adds information to the entire sentence, and you provided a delightful example sentence. Thank you!

Oddly, Noden presents it as adding focus to the subject itself. He cites Gary Hoffman (who wrote Writeful) as suggesting that we teach students that the "comma controls a telescopic lens that zooms in on images" (6). One of Noden's example sentences: "Hands shaking, feet trembling, the mountain climber edged along the cliff."

Therefore, I find myself at an impasse. He's published; I'm not. I know what the grammar book says; yet, regardless of what the particular brush stroke is called, student writing improves dramatically when it's taught.

But, wow. What a great lesson to teach my students: ALWAYS cite your sources. That way they can take the blame right along w/ the kudos ;) Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

Dal Jeanis said...

I'm laughing my head off at the moment - not at you, but at the result of the research I just did.

about.com gives this as the definition: "A group of words that modifies an independent clause as a whole".

It then gives 7 examples, only one of which exactly fits the definition. In the rest, the phrases can also be interpreted as modifying a single noun in the sentence.

The descriptions at The Garden of Phrases are more complete and match the examples at the above reference.

Here's a Steinbeck example of absolute phrases that shows up on several sites, the italic being the absolute:

"Six boys came over the hill half an hour early that afternoon, running hard, their heads down, their forearms working, their breath whistling."

As you can see, the four clauses all can be interpreted as modifying "boys", or as modifying "how the boys came". And the first phrase is clearly participial.

As such, your example becomes correct, since the twitching tail described the attitude in which "the cat watched".

I'd guess that the dividing line between a participial phrase and an absolute phrase often lies with multiplicity or heterogeny, to use some ten-dollar words. ;)

Alex Moore said...

@dal jeanis: delightful fun. i saw your comment just as I was showcasing my blog at an educational meeting, so it led to quite a lively discussion (helping to make my case for moving some of our group's pieces to blog format).

That being said, I am so thankful that one's comprehension, understanding, and knowledge of proper English grammar has little to do with the quality of one's writing. More succinctly said, I believe that excellent grammarians can write, but not all excellent writers are grammarians :)

jared said...

Here is an article that may be helpful: