WCS4: Using Varied Sentence Lengths and Styles

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. Understand the value of varied sentence lengths within a body of text.
  2. Use a variety of sentence beginnings and endings.
  3. Recognize different sentence styles.
  4. Learn how to use subordination to include main ideas and minor ideas in the same sentence.
  5. Learn how to use coordination to include two or more ideas of equal weight in a single sentence.
  6. Within a single sentence, learn to keep subordinated ideas to a minimum.
     

Text written with only one type of sentence is boring for readers. To make your texts more interesting, use sentences of varying lengths, with different openings and endings, and with a variety of structures.

Featuring Short Sentences

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 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.

Here is a video on sentence length and how to vary length for effect:

 
Created by Mr. Bruff. “Varying Sentence Length: Look at This!” Published on May 30, 2017. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License ©

Combining Short 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 causality of the two initial sentences.

Example

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.

Incorporating Sentences of Varying Lengths

Text of varying lengths is easier to read than text with sentences that are 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 short sentences, on the other hand, is choppy, unsophisticated, and equally hard to read through. 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.

These examples illustrate the importance of varying your sentence lengths.

Diversifying Your Sentence Openers and Endings

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 sentence openers adds interest.

Example 1

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.

Example 2

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 jumped 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 walked into 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 keyword 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.

Example 1

The stern instructor looked like he was about to start yelling at everybody, so I held my breath right up until the moment he broke into a wide grin.

Example 2

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.

Including Sentences with Differing Structures

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.

Sentence Type Number of Type of Clauses Example( Independent Clauses Underlined, Dependent Clauses in Bold)
Simple Sentence One independent clause

Ted threw the bat.

Compound Sentence At least two independent clauses Ted threw the bat, and it hit the umpire
Complex Sentence At least 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 0f his emotions, Ted threw the ball, and it nearly hit the umpire too.

Using Subordination and Coordination

 

Subordination and coordination are used to clarify the relative level of importance or the relationship between and among words, phrases, or clauses within sentences. You can use subordination to arrange sentence parts of unequal importance and coordination to convey the idea that sentence parts are of equal importance.

Subordination

Subordination allows you to convey differences in importance between details within a sentence. You can use the technique within a single sentence or to combine two or more smaller sentences. You should always present the most important idea in an independent clause and use dependent clauses and phrases to present the less important ideas. Start each dependent clause with a subordinating conjunction (e.g., afterbecauseby the timeeven thoughifjust in casenow thatonceonly ifsincethoughunlessuntilwhenwhetherwhile) or a relative pronoun (e.g., thatwhatwhateverwhichwhicheverwhowhoeverwhomwhomeverwhose). These starters signal the reader that the idea is subordinate. Here’s a sentence that uses a relative pronoun to convey subordination:

  • I will come to your house or meet you at the gym, whichever works best for you.

The core idea is that I will either come to your house or meet you at the gym. The fact that you’ll choose whichever option works best for you is subordinate, set apart with the relative pronoun “whichever.”

In the next example, two smaller sentences are combined using the subordinating conjunction “because”:

  • Smaller sentence 1: The number of students who live at home and take online college classes has risen in the past ten years.
  • Smaller sentence 2: The rise has been due to increased marketing of university online programs.
  • Larger sentence using subordination (version 1): The number of students living at home and taking online college classes has risen in the past ten years because of increased marketing of university online programs.
  • Larger sentence using subordination (version 2): Because of increased marketing of university online programs, the number of students living at home and taking online courses has risen in the past ten years.

Coordination

Some sentences have two or more equal ideas. You can use coordination to show a common level of importance among parts of a sentence, such as subjects, verbs, and objects.

Examples

Subject example: Both green beans and asparagus are great with grilled fish.

Verb example: We neither talked nor laughed during the whole two hours.

Object example: Machine embroidery combines the beauty of high-quality stitching and the expediency of modern technology.

The underlined ideas within each sentence carry equal weight within their individual sentences. As examples of coordination, they can be connected with coordinating conjunctions (andbutfornororsoyet) or correlative conjunctions (both…andeither…orjust as…soneither…nornot…butnot only…but alsowhether…or).

Controlling Emphasis

You likely use subordination and coordination automatically. For example, if you say that something happened (e.g., Dale broke his leg while sledding) because of something else (e.g., he broke his leg when he sledded into a tree), you can use separate sentences, or you can use subordination within one sentence.

Ideas presented in two sentences: Dale broke his leg while sledding this weekend. His leg broke when the sled hit a tree.

Ideas presented in one sentence using subordination: This weekend, Dale broke his leg when his sled hit a tree. [Dale broke his leg is the main idea. The fact that it happened when the sled hit a tree is the subordinated idea.]

A natural way to use coordination is, for example, to discuss two things you plan to do on vacation. You can present the two ideas in separate sentences or in one sentence using coordination to signal equal emphases.

Ideas presented in two sentences: I’m planning to see the Statue of Liberty while I’m in New York. I’m also going to go to a Broadway play.

Ideas presented in one sentence using coordination: While I’m in New York, I am planning to see the Statue of Liberty and go to a Broadway play.

Subordination Pitfalls

You will want to avoid two common subordination mistakes: placing main ideas in subordinate clauses or phrases and placing too many subordinate ideas in one sentence.

Here’s an example of a sentence that subordinates the main idea:

  • LoDo, a charming neighborhood featuring great art galleries, restaurants, cafés, and shops, is located in the Lower Downtown District of Denver.

The problem here is that main idea is embedded in a subordinate clause. Instead of focusing on the distinctive features of the LoDo neighborhood, the sentence makes it appear as if the main idea is the neighborhood’s location in Denver. Here’s a revision:

  • LoDo, located in the Lower Downtown District of Denver, is a charming neighborhood featuring great art galleries, restaurants, cafés, and shops.

A sentence with too many subordinated ideas is confusing and difficult to read.

Here’s an example:

  • Television executives, who make the decisions about which shows to pull and which to extend, need to consider more than their individual opinions so that they do not pull another Star Trek mess-up where they don’t recognize a great show when they see it, while balancing the need to maintain a schedule that appeals to a broad audience, considering that new types of shows don’t yet have a broad following.

And here’s a possible revision:

  • Television executives need to consider more than their individual opinions when they decide which shows to pull and which to extend. Many years ago, some of these very executives decided that Star Trek should be canceled, clearly demonstrating they do not always know which shows will become great. Television executives should also balance the need to maintain a schedule that appeals to a broad audience with an appreciation for new types of shows that don’t yet have a broad following.

For more on subordinating and coordinating clauses, check out this Khan Academy video:

 


Adapted from Chapter 16 “Sentence Style” in Writer’s Handbook v 1.0 used according to Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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