Saturday, 2 April 2011

Part 1 - Sentence Structure

Understanding sentences

How do you know that writing a sentence in a different way is better than your original? Does it sound right, does it read better, does it make the point? More importantly, is it grammatically correct?

We’re not born with the ability to tell the difference between good sentences and bad ones; it is something the writer learns, with practice, and over time, the writer begins to understand the concept of fitting the right words and ideas together. Sentences not only read better, but also sound better. Creating the right sentences with the right words is an art form and it is one of those important elements in fiction writing that give a writer a sense of style and voice.

We write our sentences without thinking about the technical side of sentence construction, but to fully understand and appreciate sentence structure, writers have to understand the form of language and grammar - this is important when creating narrative. 

There are several sentence patterns that a writer should become familiar with – simple sentences and clauses, complex sentences and compound sentences.  Hopefully by gaining a better understanding about the technical side of sentences, you will improve the way you construct your sentences and therefore improve your narrative.

Simple sentences contain a single clause. Complex sentences and compound-complex sentences may contain two or more, but to be grammatical, a sentence should have a subject (a phrase or noun), a verb, and should express one complete thought or idea. For instance:

Jane cried. (Jane is the subject, cried is a verb and the fact that she cried is expressing the complete thought or idea of the sentence). Although it is a short sentence made up of two words, it is still grammatically correct.

Often writers (even famous, established ones, unfortunately) use a participle (or hanging participle) to make a sentence, such as:

Looking down at his feet...
Walking away from him...
Wrapping the rope around the post...

Here, there is only a participle, there is no verb and the subject is unclear. Not only that, but hanging participle sentences cause ambiguity - you cannot describe a character doing two things at once, i.e ‘Reaching for the kettle, she realised she had made a mistake.’ This means she reached for the kettle and made a mistake (at the same time).

Refrain from using hanging participles because these are grammatically incorrect, they’re ambiguous in nature and can cause confusion with your reader. It also smacks of bad writing.

Clauses

A clause refers to a bunch grammatically connected words which include a predicate and a subject. The predicate modifies the subject. Every sentence consists of one or more clauses and they can be dependent or independent.

Independent clauses have an ability to stand by themselves – i.e. they are what are known as simple sentences. Dependent clauses are used together with independent clauses because dependent clauses cannot stand alone as a sentence. Instead, they enhance the independent clause.

Simple Sentences

Basic sentences which contain one clause are known as simple sentences. For instance:

This sentence is a simple sentence.
This sentence is a simple sentence with a few more words added.

Even one word can be a simple sentence, for instance: No, Wait, Run.

Simple sentences are just that, but to make your sentences lure your reader and to enrich the narrative, you have to create compound sentences.

Compound Sentences

A compound sentence consists of two or more independent clauses joined by co-ordinating conjunctions such as ‘and,’ ‘but,’ and ‘or’, or they can include adjectives like ‘however’ or ‘therefore, as this example:

This sentence is a simple sentence, but this sentence is a simple sentence with the addition of a conjunction.

By using the conjunction, ‘but’, the flow of the sentence is extended and uninterrupted...and this very sentence is also a compound sentence.

Complex Sentences

A complex sentence contains one independent clause and at least one dependent clause. For example:

This sentence is a simple sentence (independent clause) which has a few more words that make it longer (independent clause).

Compound-complex sentences

When there is a combination of a compound sentence and a complex sentence, or two complex sentences, (i.e. with at least two independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses) then you have what is known as a compound-complex sentence.

For instance:

This sentence is a simple sentence (Independent clause)
Which just has a few more words to make it longer (Dependent clause)
It is basic in its form (Independent clause)

This sentence is a simple sentence; it is basic in its form, which just has a few more words that make it longer.

As in the example, you can also join two originally separate sentences into a compound sentence using a semicolon instead of a co-ordinating conjunction.

Conjunctions are handy when constructing short, effective sentences, but it is best to avoid using too many otherwise your sentences will become awkward and will leave the reader tripping over them. Worse still, don’t use commas to simply stitch together sentences, for instance:

This sentence is a simple sentence, it is basic in its form, it has a few more words added, it makes a sentence longer.

This reliance on commas makes the writing look heavy and awkward. Remember to use conjunctions correctly when constructing sentences. Sentences are an integral part of what you write; the aim is to make them as clear and as effective as possible.


Next week: Part 2 - Styling sentences - how to find balance and rhythm and build the right sentence

9 comments:

  1. You take such detail in breaking sentence structure it's incredible. I'll be bookmarking this just incase I ever have trouble compiling one or should anyone need advice!

    I'm a newbie here and I love the blog background it's so neat!!! I do hope you'll stop by and say hello :)

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  2. Thanks for the positive feedback Jen, glad it's proving a help.

    And do feel free to ask any questions!

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  3. Hi I'm not a linguist but in your comment on the sentence "Reaching for the kettle, she realised she had made a mistake." you indicated that the two actions happened at the same time but in fact the use of past perfect in this sentence indicates that making the mistake had happened first. So the sentence could go like this: " reaching out for the kettle, she realised she had made a mistake in inviting him in" or something to that effect. Cheers !

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    1. The sentence could be written hundreds of different ways with the first word beginning with a hanging participle, but it would still be bad writing.

      And it doesn't matter about the past perfect structure, it is still starting with a hanging participle. If writers want to improve their writing they will chuck out all instances of them. If they wish to continue writing badly, then that's up to them.

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  4. Regarding the hanging participle, my wife pointed out to me that, as it was a 'she', doing two things at the same time WAS possibe!

    I shall defer to your judgement in the matter.

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    1. In real life we can do many things at once. In literature we don't because as I've already pointed out, it causes ambiguity and bad sentence structure. As an editor, and working with other editors, we really do balk at some of poor sentence choices. Fiction isn't real life, therefore clarity is a must. If writers don't want to improve, then that's fine, but those who do should sit up and take note.

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  5. Thanks for one's marvelous posting! I definitely enjoyed reading it, you can be a great author. I will ensure that I bookmark your blog and definitely will come back someday. I want to encourage you to ultimately continue your great writing, have a nice day!
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  6. I agree with what you are saying. My background is in teaching Creative Writing and English Composition. I am in a writing group of my peers, and the trend seems to be writing badly and calling it a style. It is not done well and very difficult to read. Am I getting old? Is this acceptable.

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    1. Hi there. For me - and I am very strict when I critique or edit - there is no excuse for bad writing when the writer has the power to make it so much better. They just don't (or won't) see it. So no, you're not getting old. You're just wise to what is generally acceptable.

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