One way to make your writing more interesting and more powerful is to consider the different varieties of sentence structure.
And not use any one structure too much.
What is a sentence?
For one thing, a sentence is a group of words that has a subject and a predicate. The subject is what the sentence is about. The predicate includes the verb, or maybe more than one verb, and provides information about the subject.
A sentence also has a main clause. And what’s a clause? A group of words that has a subject and a predicate. But clauses come in two types, dependent and independent.
An independent clause expresses a complete thought and, by itself, makes a simple sentence. But look at the following clauses, which do not express a complete thought. They’re called dependent clauses, because their meaning depends on an independent clause.
- if we could write more effectively
- that has a subject
- whenever I sit at the computer
- which do not express a complete thought
You can write short sentences.
But because too many short sentences make a boring piece of writing, or perhaps something intended for beginning readers, if you want your readers to stay interested enough to keep reading your post, article, or letter, you need to know how and when to write long sentences for the sake of sentence variety. Long sentences enable you to express more complex thoughts than short ones. But who wants to read long sentences piled upon long sentences?
I couldn’t think of a way to make my long sentence example as complicated as one I remember from a book I had to read in college.
That sentence occupied more than a quarter of the page. When I finally identified the subject, the verb didn’t appear until a couple of lines later.
Thank God for my grouchy old seventh-grade English teacher, who made us learn to diagram sentences!
I can’t find anything to equal it, but Thomas Jefferson wrote five words between the subject and verb in the independent clause of first sentence of the Declaration of Independence:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
What varieties of sentence structure are there?
- Simple: a single independent clause
- Compound: two or more independent clauses, separated by a conjunction or semicolon
- Complex: one independent clause and at least one dependent clause
- Compound-complex: two or more independent clauses and at least one dependent clause
I call these basic sentence structures “acceptable,” because there is also something called a run-on sentence. It’s essentially two independent clauses separated by a comma or just a space. A run-on sentence doesn’t have to be long it can be short. Like that one. A semicolon after “long” would cure what ails it.
You might also encounter something that starts with a capital letter, ends with a period or other final punctuation, but is not a complete sentence. A sentence fragment.
A sentence fragment lacks either a subject, a predicate, or both. I have seen it compared to wearing a shirt, but no pants! In formal writing, avoid sentence fragments. In informal writing, use them judiciously and deliberately for effect. Don’t overuse them.
Short sentences are probably simple sentences, but a simple sentence isn’t necessarily short. Prepositional phrases, lists, adjectives, and adverbs all add length.
Why you need varieties of sentence structure
So about any article about sentence structure will advise you to use some long sentences for the sake of complexity.
Complex sentences can also help you avoid starting too many sentences with the same word or phrase. You can probably put all the clauses and phrases in a different order and still have your sentence mean the same thing.
But I have seen another problem, mostly in foreign students writing essays to get into graduate school.
It seems they want to demonstrate their mastery of complex and compound-complex sentences. So they’ll submit a thousand-word essay without a single simple sentence. And they haven’t necessarily mastered these forms, either. They dive into a long sentence and get lost. The result? Perhaps a run-on sentence—or a very long sentence fragment.
Too many long sentences make reading unreasonably difficult.
You don’t want either to bore or confuse your readers, do you? Diversity belongs in prose as much as anywhere else. Use all the varieties of sentence structure.