On sentence structure

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One of the things that I struggle with most in writing, especially when writing fiction, is sentence structure; specifically, not leaning on the same form over and over again. For me, this often takes the form of a prepositional phrase, followed by a subject/verb/object combo and then several run-on clauses. I catch myself doing it too often, and it always makes me dread reading a piece back, hearing the same repetitive rhythms, again and again.

Subject/verb agreement, dependent clauses and sub-clauses, gerund nouns acting as verbs -- there's no doubt that English is complicated. Aside from the indispensable Strunk & White, another resource that I find very useful is a series of blog posts by British writer Daniel Wallace on his site, incompetentwriter.com. Over the course of eleven essays, he offers specific advice on How To Write Better Sentences.

Since I have often found that writing something down in your own words is an excellent aide memoire -- and also because I have a daily word count to hit -- I have decided to summarise his advice here, both for my own future reference and for your edification.

Put the key word last

The first tip is actually taken from the aforementioned Strunk & White, and it is to “place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.” By rearranging sentences in such a way that the critical piece, the thought that is being elucidated, arrives last of all, it helps it to feel like a foregone and inevitable conclusion to the sentence. It seems to work especially well in run-on sentences like the preceding one, although Wallace notes that it can impart an air of controlled calm which might not work for every scene in a story.

Noun style, verb style

This one is harder to summarise, and Wallace relies a lot on quoted examples, but basically it boils down to 'noun style' being wordier and more formal-sounding, with long abstract openings (common in academia and officialdom), while 'verb style' gets to the point faster by using the usual subject/verb opening, and expressing ideas more simply. The canonical example he gives is:

Verb style: I came. I saw. I conquered.

Noun style: Arrival; Reconnaissance; Victory.

Ultimately it's fine to mix and match both styles of sentence, as long as you're aware of what you're doing and avoid the main problems in your writing that the noun style can introduce.

Parataxis

Into the realm of fancy Greek words. Parataxis is described as "syntactic democracy" -- the sense that each sentence, thought, or clause is equal in value, and unconnected to its surroundings. The opposite is hypotaxis, in which the author explicitly declares cause and effect, primary and secondary, conundrum and explanation. But in paratactical writing, each statement stands alone, and it is left to the reader to infer meaning.

Probably the most famous examples of parataxis come from Hemingway's trademark sparse narrative style, stating only what is and leaving the reader to fill in emotion and interpretation in the gaps that are left. Parataxis, Wallace notes, can also be deployed to deliberately evoke an atmosphere of confusion, wherein things happen without explanation or reason, and it can also impart an almost religious weight to your prose; as Wallace has it, "Parataxis suits the speech of oracles."

Hypotaxis

As mentioned above, hypotaxis is a style wherein thoughts and statements are clearly related together to form a series of connected ideas, and is therefore most common in forms such as essays and factual articles. But, it can still be deployed in narrative prose, in the sort of structure characterised by "if... then... but..." language use. It suits digressions, and can be particularly powerful if used in conjunction with parallelism, the technique of repeating elements of a sentence's structure over and over.

Clauses and kernels

A discussion of the basic building block of the sentence, the clause. A clause contains a subject and a verb; the man walked to work, the woman laughed loudly, the girl cried. Clauses can be linked together by words like and, then, because -- eventually you get into the difference between independent and dependent clauses, which you probably learned about in school.

Wallace cites Virginia Tufte, who ranked different types of clause based on the amount of 'energy' they contain. Clauses with variations on the 'be' verb are weakest (is, are, were, etc.); next come linking verbs (become, seem, resemble, cause); after that are intransitive verbs, those that lack an object, such as 'cried'; and finally, transitive verbs -- those requiring both a subject and an object to function correctly. Tufte says that the more energy you want a passage to have, the higher up the scale you need to go, avoiding the lower energy 'be' verbs unless you want to slow down the action.

Phrases and branching sentences

Here we get into some more technical aspects of grammar, requiring the reader to be at least passingly familiar with the various flavours of word type. First, Wallace rather skips around the thorny issue of defining what a 'phrase' is in English, but does at least helpfully provide examples of different types of phrase, each named for the type of word that begins them.

Prepositional phrases, then, begin with a preposition -- a locating word -- such as "in the garden" or "behind the desk." Adjective phrases start with a describing word, as in "bigger than the last" or "flat on his back." Noun phrases begin with a noun: "my head about to burst with the pain." The gerund form of a verb (one ending in -ing) starts a gerund phrase, for example "wishing she wasn't there." A participle is a noun or verb modifier; present participles often also end in -ing, while past participles may end in -ed (giggled/giggling, helped/helping) although this is not always the case (singing/sung). Participle phrases, therefore, begin with a participle: "interested by the explanation." Finally, the simile phrase draws a parallel between whatever has come before it and its contents, as in "...like a paper swan on a lake."

Clearly all of the examples above are incapable of standing on their own as complete sentences; they require a complete clause, a subject/verb, to modify. But the central point of this piece is that the phrases can be inserted anywhere within a clause. If we take the final example, "like a paper swan across a lake," and combine it with the subject/verb clause "the tugboat sailed away," there are multiple ways to achieve different effects, simply by rearranging the component parts:

The tugboat sailed away like a paper swan across a lake.

Like a paper swan across a lake, the tugboat sailed away.

The tugboat, like a paper swan across a lake, sailed away.

Wallace refers to these as branching right (adding extra phrases after the main clause), branching left (adding information before the clause) or branching in the middle of the clause. Since these different phrase types can be built upon almost infinitely, complex sentences can be built up by branching in different ways around the core clause of the sentence.

Christensen's cumulative sentence

The Christensen referred to here is Francis Christensen, author of Notes Towards a New Rhetoric; a writing theorist who advocated a denser, more layered approach to constructing living sentences. It's basically a summary of the two previous articles, amid further detail on how Christensen considered a sentence should be built up -- modifying the kernel clause by adding phrases before, during or after, in such a way that it directs the reader's attention, forwards or backwards, from sight to insight. Christensen further says that a variety in texture -- now bare and sparse, now denser, more wordy -- is the "road to excellent writing."

Stress and flow

Even to the untutored ear, prose where every sentence is the same length and follows the same structure is uncomfortable to read. Beginning writers are often commonly advised to attempt to vary the length and style of their sentences, but what is less common are tips on how to use patterns of similar sounds to augment the effect of one's prose. Most people are familiar with alliteration and rhyme; fewer may be aware of assonance (similar vowel sounds, as in "Go slow Joe"). Stress is creating similarity in rhythm, and is employed a lot, unsurprisingly, in poetry, but it also has applications in regular writing, which he covers in further detail under the heading...

Iambs and beats

Citing examples from both DH Lawrence and the US Constitution, Wallace discusses the power of using stress in different ways to create parallel sensations to the meaning of the words. The description of a train passing might be expressed in thundering, clattering, powerful language; word stresses that mirror the quickness of the sounds and feelings evoked by an enormous vehicle passing by. This principle works to augment meaning, too, for example similarity between two things may be given extra weight by using the same stresses in the language that describes them.

Iambic pentameter is the rhythm of Shakespeare: five iambs, which are a weak beat followed by a strong one, so that each line has ten syllables:

If music be the food of love, play on.

Aside from when you're writing sonnets, this technique of knowingly applying patterns to prose can impart a subtle rhythm to the work that is attractive to readers. And iambic pentameter is not the only possible rhythm to use; four- or three-beat rhythms can impart a songlike quality, while three-step rhythms, weak-weak-strong, are called anapests. Of course, as with most other 'rules,' variety is key.

Sounds in lonely places

The final essay in the series is little more than an introduction to a far longer piece in Believer Magazine by Gary Lutz: The Sentence is a Lonely Place. It's very detailed and worth reading in full, as it goes into some detail in its analysis of word choice and how certain words work in concert together within the same sentence fragment, even down to the level of how repeated letters function to guide the reader's attention through the subtle rhythms of the language.

Handily for those of us in need of quick and easily-absorbed advice, it ends with some specific words of wisdom:

  • Stressed syllables in a sentence should outnumber the unstressed syllables;
  • End your sentence with the force produced by a stressed syllable;
  • Give more power to your sentences by placing the subject at the very beginning, rather than delaying the subject until after an introductory phrase or a dependent clause;
  • Make use of alliteration, as long as it remains "ungimmicky, unobtrusive, even subliminal";
  • Also take advantage of assonance;
  • Finally, put some play into your phrasing by misusing words -- make nouns into verbs, create new adjectives, or use words in unexpected congregation.

In conclusion

So, to summarise ... writing is hard. Aside from the necessity of inventing a meaningful plot and relatable characters out of thin air, it's not enough to simply possess the vocabulary and talent to get the words in the right order to tell the story. No, we must also be aware of how we use each and every word; how the sounds and letters in that word relate to those before, after, or nearby; and how the cumulative effect of those words, phrases, clauses and sentences combine to create meaning beyond the words on the page.

Re-telling Wallace's advice here has gone a little way to helping me internalise some of the techniques and advice he covers, and I hope that perhaps it has been useful for anyone else who chances to come across it here on my lonely blog. #amwriting

Photo credit: Nic McPhee

Matthew Pennell

Designer, developer, writer, runner, gamer, devil's advocate, INTP. Senior designer for Booking.com. Founder, Refresh Cambridge.
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