This is “Using Varied Sentence Lengths and Styles”, section 16.1 from the book Writers' Handbook (v. 1.0).
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Text written with only one type of sentence is boring for readers. To make your texts more interesting, you should use sentences of varying lengths, with different openings and endings, and with a variety of structures.
Short sentences, when not overused, can be used to emphasize an idea and catch a reader’s attention. Notice how the ideas expressed through the following short sentences grab your attention more than the same ideas do when embedded in longer sentences.
Ideas separated into shorter sentences: My mother wants me to spend next weekend with her and my two aunts. They all talk nonstop. I am sure I would be nothing more than a fly on the wall while they talk about all the family members. I am simply not going!
Ideas embedded in longer sentences: My mother wants me to spend next weekend with her and my two aunts who all talk nonstop. I am sure I would be nothing more than a fly on the wall while they talk about all the family members, so I am simply not going!
But you need to be careful to choose your short sentences strategically so that they carry emphasis without making your writing appear unsophisticated. A third option might be to use one longer sentence and break up the other one into two shorter sentences.
Since an abundance of short sentences will give a simplistic appearance to your writing, you don’t want to use an excessive number of them close together. You can combine short sentences as a means of explaining an idea or a connection between two ideas. When you combine two complete sentences, you have to choose to either subordinate one of the ideas to the other or coordinate the two ideas by giving them equal weight. Your choice should always reflect the intended emphasis and causalityThe relationship between the cause of an action and its effect (e.g., “The food spoiled because I left the freezer door open last night”). of the two initial sentences.
Two short sentences: My television is broken. It is Karen’s fault.
Sentence combination that maintains intended emphasis and causality: Because of Karen, my television is broken.
Text of varying lengths is easier to read than text where the sentences are all about the same length. A whole page of extremely long sentences is overwhelming. Try reading a high-level academic paper on a scientific topic. The sentences are often long and involved, which results in difficult reading. A whole page of very short sentences, on the other hand, is choppy and seems unsophisticated.
Consider the following text that begins the first chapter of Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad. Twain begins with a long sentence (thirty-three words), follows with a medium-length sentence (seventeen words), and closes with two short sentences (six and five words, respectively). This mix of sentence lengths creates text that flows smoothly and is easy to read.
One day it occurred to me that it had been many years since the world had been afforded the spectacle of a man adventurous enough to undertake a journey through Europe on foot. After much thought, I decided that I was a person fitted to furnish to mankind this spectacle. So I determined to do it. This was in March, 1878.
Now read a different version of the same paragraph. Notice how the short sentences sound choppy and juvenile.
I was thinking one day. I thought of something the world hadn’t seen lately. My thought was of an adventurous man. The man was on a walking trip through Europe. I thought some more. Then I decided that I should take such a trip. I should give the world something to watch. So I determined to do it. This was in March 1878.
Here’s another version of the same paragraph written in one long and rather overwhelming sentence.
One day it occurred to me that it had been many years since the world had been afforded the spectacle of a man adventurous enough to undertake a journey through Europe on foot, so after much thought, I decided that I was a person fitted to furnish to mankind this spectacle, and it was in March 1878 that I decided I was determined to do it.
Like making all your sentences the same length, starting all your sentences in the same format—say, with “the” or “there”—could result in seriously boring text. Even if you vary your openings slightly but still follow the basic subject–verb–object format every time, you’re missing an opportunity to make your sentences more interesting. Study how the following techniques for varying the sentence openersThe first word of a sentence or the grammatical format with which a sentence begins. add interest.
All sentences begin with one or two words:
Original: The girl was terribly upset when her purse was stolen. There wasn’t anything that could get the image out of her mind. The thief was running when he grabbed her purse. The girl didn’t see him coming and was caught off guard. The girl fell down and never got a good look at him.
Revision: [Reverse the sentence.] Having her purse stolen upset the girl terribly. [Start with the key issue.] Her mind held onto the image and would not let it go. [Add an adverb.] Unfortunately, she didn’t see him coming and was so caught off guard that she fell down and never got a good look at him.
Sentences begin with a variety of words but all follow the subject–verb–object format:
Original: The young woman got up off the ground. Then she ran to her dorm room in a state of shock. She got in the elevator without looking at anyone. She started crying as soon as she walked into her room. Her roommate held her hand and tried to get her to calm down. Some friends from down the hall showed up.
Revision: The young woman got up off the ground. [Rearrange to create an introductory phrase.] In a state of shock, she ran to her dorm room. [Insert an adjective at the beginning.] Frightened, she got in the elevator without looking at anyone. [Choose an unusual subject for the sentence.] Tears came as soon as she walked into her room. [Rearrange to create an introductory phrase.] In an effort to calm her down, her roommate held her hand. [Add some new content at the beginning of the sentence.] As timing would have it, some friends from down the hall showed up.
By placing a key word or phrase at the end of a sentence, you can also hold readers’ attention as they wait for the full meaning to unfold. This approach of building to a climax places added emphasis on an idea.
The old battle-ax looked like she was about to start yelling at everybody, so I held my breath right up until the moment she broke into a wide grin.
The whole family gathered around the computer waiting for my sister to say the words we’d been waiting to hear for fifteen months—that she was coming home.
Just as you need to use a variety of sentence openers to keep text interesting, you should vary your sentence structure. The types of clauses you use are key factors in varying your sentence structure. Look at the following table for an overview.
Table 16.1 Varying Sentence Types Based on Clauses
|Sentence Type||Number and Type of Clauses||Example [Independent Clauses Underlined, Dependent Clauses in Bold]|
|Simple sentence||One independent clause||Ted threw the bat.|
|Compound sentence||Two independent clauses||Ted threw the bat, and it hit the umpire.|
|Complex sentence||One independent clause and one or more dependent clauses||While wincing in pain, the umpire ejected Ted, causing the manager to protest.|
|Compound-complex sentence||At least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause||Losing control of his emotions, Ted threw the ball, and it nearly hit the umpire too.|
Combine the following two sentences into one sentence where the relationship between the two ideas is emphasized:
In size, Idaho is the fourteenth-largest state in the United States.
In population, Idaho ranks thirty-ninth in the United States.