Changing Sentence Length and Pattern

From the beginning she had known what she wanted, and proceeded single-minded, with the force of a steam engine towards her goal. There was never a moment's doubt or regret. She wanted the East; and from the moment she set eyes on Richard Burton, with his dark Arabic face, his "questing panther eyes," he was, for her, that lodestar East, the embodiment of all her thoughts. Man and land were identified. Lesley Blanch

It is not necessary, or even desirable, to maintain a strict alternation of long and short statements. You need only an occasional brief sentence to change the pace of predominately long ones, or a long sentence now and then in a passage composed chiefly of short ones:

We took a hair-raising taxi ride into the city. The rush-hour traffic of Bombay is a nightmare—not from dementia, as in Tokyo; nor from exuberance, as in Rome; not from malice, as in Paris; it is a chaos rooted in years of practiced confusion, absentmindedness, selfishness, inertia, and an incomplete understanding of mechanics. There are no discernible rules. James Cameron

Dave Beck was hurt. Dave Beck was indignant. He took the fifth amendment when he was questioned and was forced off the executive board of the but he retained enough control of his own union treasury to hire a stockade of lawyers to protect him.

Prosecution dragged in the courts. Convictions were appealed.

Delay. John Dos Passos

Sometimes variation in length can be used to emphasize a key idea. In the following passage the historian Herbert But-terfield moves through two long sentences (the second a bit shorter than the first) to a strong short statement:

The Whig historian is interested in discovering agency in history, even where in this way he must avow it only implicit. It is characteristic of his method that he should be interested in the agency rather than in the process. And this is how he achieves his simplification.


Fragments, usually a special kind of short sentence, make for effective to see and easy to use (italics high light the fragments in the next examples):

Sam steals like this because he is a thief. Not a big thief. He tried to be a big thief once and everybody got mad at him and made him go away to jail. He is strictly a small thief, and he only steals for his restaurant. Jimmy Breslin

Examinations tend to make me merry, often seeming to me to be some kind of private game, some secret ritual compulsively played by professors and the institution. invariably become facetious in all the critical hours. All that solemnity for a few facts! 1 couldn't believe they were serious. I never quite understood it.

Mary Caroline Richards

Used with restraint, fragments like these are a simple way to vary your sentences. They are, however, more at home in a colloquial style than in a formal one.

Rhetorical Questions

Like fragments or any other kind of unusual sentence, rhetorical questions are rarely used for variety alone. Their primary purpose is to emphasize a point or to set up a topic for discussion. Still, whenever they are employed for such ends, they are also a source of variety:

But Toronto—Toronto is the subject. One must say something— what must one say about Toronto? What can one? What has anybody ever said? It is impossible to give it anything but commendation. It is not squalid like Birmingham, or cramped like Canton, or scattered like Edmonton, or sham like Berlin, or hellish like New York, or tiresome like Nice. It is all right. The only depressing thing is that it will always be what it is, only larger, and that no Canadian city can ever be anything better or different. If they are good they may become Toronto. Rupert Brooke

Varied Openings

Monotony especially threatens when sentence after sentence begins the same way. It is easy to open with something other than the usual subject and verb: a prepositional phrase; an adverbial clause; a connective like therefore or an adverb like naturally, or, immediately following the subject and splitting it from the verb, a nonrestrictive adjectival construction. Take a look at this passage:

In the first decade of the new century, the South remained primarily rural; the beginnings of change, in those years, hardly affected the lot of the Negro. The agricultural system had never recovered fully from the destruction of the old plantation economy. Bound to the production of cotton, rice, soil suf fered from erosion and neglect. Those who cultivated it depended at best upon the uncertain returns of fluctuating world markets. But the circumstances under which labor was organized, particularly Negro labor, added to those difficulties further hardships of human Creation. Oscar Handlin

Handlin's five sentences show considerable variety in their openings: a prepositional phrase, a subject, a participial phrase, a subject, and a connective word.

Interrupted Movement

Interruption—positioning a modifier or even a second, independent sentence between main elements of a clause so that pauses are required on either side of the intruder—nicely varies straightforward movement. Here the writer places a second sentence between two clauses (italics added) :

I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that J ought to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant—it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery—and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. George Orwell




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