|Dr. Kristi Siegel
Mount Mary College
|Varying Sentence Length|
|A subtle, but very effective way, to make your writing deadly and monotonous is by never varying sentence length. One short sentence after another makes your prose sound choppy, childish, or like a bad imitation of Hemingway. Conversely, all "long" sentences can make your writing hard to read. However, using all "medium"-length sentences doesn't work, either. Sentences that are all about the same length (and often follow the same grammatical pattern) create monotony. A longer sentence, such as the one I'm creating here, serves to offer more details, to focus in, to probe an idea more thoroughly, or--perhaps--to present a powerful description. A short sentence gets to the point.
To analyze your own writing, you first need to find out your ANW/S (average number of words per sentence; ... I just made that term up :).
1)Take an essay that represents your normal writing (e.g., one with a great deal of dialogue or an unusual amount of description could skew the results) and mark off twenty sentences.
2) Count the number of words in each sentence and then add those totals to get a grandtotal.
3) Divide the grandtotal by 20. Your result will be the average number of words per sentence.
In general--and this type of analysis is very tenuous--an average sentence length below 14 words per sentence may indicate that you use too many short sentences and you need to learn how to combine and/or subordinate ideas. If your average sentence length is well above 22 words a sentence, you may be piling too much freight on your sentences and have a prose style that is dense and tangled. If your average word length falls between 14 and 22, you need to look at your sentences to see if there is some variety or if they are all about the same length.
Should you decide your sentences are just spiffy the way they are, don't get too smug. Hearing the "rhythm" of your sentences, knowing when to use a longer sentence or a shorter one, and knowing when to vary the pattern of a sentence is a "work-in-progress" for most of us. Effective sentence style doesn't just happen. It takes work.
|Fixing "Short" Sentences|
|Sentence combining and subordination are two methods to fix short-sentence-itis. Sentence combining is just what it sounds like. Often, a series of short sentences can be combined into a longer, more effective sentence.
|For example, consider the following paragraph (this is taken from Writing with a Purpose by Joseph Trimmer):
Last weekend I saw a science fiction film. Three friends went with me. The film focused on the experiments of a mad doctor. He altered his patients' lives by manipulating their dreams.
In the sample paragraph above the short sentences, all having the same noun-verb-object pattern, create a choppy effect. Here are the sentences "combined" into one, more economical sentence:
Last weekend three friends and I saw a science fiction film in which a mad doctor altered his patients' lives by manipulating their dreams.
Now, look at your own writing. Are there groups of shorter sentences that could be combined?
|Short, choppy sentences also make it difficult for a reader to understand the connection between ideas. By using subordinating conjunctions (connective words that make one clause in a sentence dependent--or subordinate--and thus show the relationship between one clause and another) a reader is given more direction. Subordinating conjunctions include words such as after, when, although, because, etc.
Consider the following examples:
I kicked the chair. My foot hurt terribly.
Now consider how subordination links and show the connection between the two sentences. By using different subordinating conjunctions, the sentences take on very different meanings:
After I kicked the chair, my foot hurt terribly.
I kicked the chair because my foot hurt terribly.
Now, check your own writing. Do your sentences show the relationship between more important ideas and less important ideas? Is it clear how the ideas in one sentence relate to the ideas in the next sentence? If not, you may need to join these sentences with a subordinating conjunction. A list of subordinating conjunctions is provided in the Commonly Used Grammatical terms link.
|Fixing Long, Wordy Sentences|
|Longer sentences can be extremely effective; they can also be just plain wordy. Try some of these strategies to streamline your sentences:
1) Avoid using passive verbs such as is, was, were, are, has, had, etc.; passive contructions create wordiness. The pedestrian was hit by the man who was driving a red car vs. The man in the red car hit the pedestrian.
2) Avoid using too many prepositional phrases (e.g., "the house of my mother" rather than "my mother's house").
3) Prune your sentences. Eliminate repetition (don't state the same idea three different ways) and eliminate unnecessary words, e.g., In my mind, I decided that ... -- where else are you going to decide something? In someone else's mind? or phrases like "true fact" (a fact is true), "new innovations," and so forth.
4) Cut back on the use of words such as it, which, whose, that, those, thing, these, they.
5) Eliminate what Ken Macrorie calls "namery" (the habit of naming things that do not need naming). Here's a wonderful example of sentence "tightening" from his book, Telling Writing:
Juliet and Rosalind are women who fall in love. This is one of the few simlarities between these two characters. They are different in age, with Juliet being an impetuous adolescent and Rosalind being a mature adult. This different is illustrated by the manner in which each character falls in love. Juliet rushes into romance and gets married as quickly as possible while Rosalind makes sure of her love for Orlando--a much more rational and logical choice than Juliet's.
This paragraph is devastated by Namery. The author says that Juliet and Rosalind falls in love and then unnecessarily says these acts are similar. He says the two are different in age and then later says one is an adolescent and the other an adult. He wastes completely the sentence:
This difference is illustrated by the manner in which each character falls in love.
because the next sentence shows the difference specifically. The paragraph could be cut in half without losing essential meaning:
One of the few similarities between Juliet and Rosalind is that they both fall in love; but Juliet rushes into romance while Rosalind makes sure of her love for Orlando. Juliet is an impetuous adolescent; Rosalind is a mature adult."
How much "filler" do your sentences contain?