Monday, August 29, 2011

The Ebb and Flow of Sentence Structure

Recently I listened to an excerpt from someone’s novel, and after mulling the piece over in my mind, I finally figured out what disturbed me about it. Her sentences all sounded the same.

The ebb and flow of sentence structure is key to good writing. Like the waves of the sea, using varied sentence lengths provides the current that undulates within a paragraph, moving the reader upward with the flow then ebbing to emphasize and to clarify.

Three basic kinds of sentences exist: simple, compound, and complex. Sentences consist of independent and dependent clauses—sentence fragments that contain subjects and those that do not. It is the creative usage and variety of these clauses that either cause our words to succeed or fail.

Simple sentence structure uses independent clauses that can stand alone as a sentence, such as: The dog chased the cat. Sometimes a short sentence is sufficient. Compound sentences use two or more independent clauses. The dog chased the cat, and the cat ran up a tree. This format extends the flow of our words and provides more interest. Complex sentence structure consists of one or more dependent clauses and at least one independent clause. The dog chased the cat, and though the dog’s snapping jowls ripped one of the feline’s nine lives to shreds, the cat ran up the tree to perch safely on the highest branch. Be careful to punctuate correctly within this format. Break the sentence into smaller segments if you aren’t sure where to place the commas.

English teachers have lectured and pointed their knotty fingers at us when we’ve used dependent clauses by themselves, threatening to mark “sentence fragment” on our papers with their accursed red pens. For the most part I agree with them. Yet isn’t it fun to break the rules? We would do well to understand the difference between dependent clauses and independent clauses. Knowing the rules helps us to produce a product worth reading. But sometimes we can use a wayward sentence or two with purpose. For emphasis. Or special effect. Or in dialogue. It’s the flotsam that puts punch into our writing. Just use them sparingly. And leave them out of formal writing.

I can’t tell you how to write. However, I guarantee if you use a variety of well-crafted sentence lengths, your work will sweep your reader into the stream of your words and surge them forward to a satisfactory ending.

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