The Well Written Sentence Variety

The Art Cinema is a movie theater in Hartford. Its speciality is showing foreign films. The theater is rated quite high as to the movies it shows. The movies are considered to be good art. student

The Smith disclosures shocked [President] Harding not into political housecleaning but into personal reform. The White House poker parties were abandoned. He told his intimates that he was "off liquor." Nan Britton [Harding's mistress] had already been banished to Europe. His nerve was shaken. He lost his taste for revelry. The plans for the Alaska trip were radically revised. Instead of an itinerant whoopee, it was now to be a serious political mission.

Samuel Hopkins Adams

Both of those passages consist chiefly of short, simple sentences. The first uses them poorly, the second effectively. Where does the difference lie? The first writer has not grasped the twin principles of recurrence and variety which govern sentence style. Adams, a professional author, understands them very well.

Recurrence means repeating a basic sentence pattern. Variety means changing the pattern. Paradoxical as it sounds, good sentence style must do both. Enough sameness must appear in the sentences to make the writing seem all of a piece; enough difference to create interest.

How much recurrence, how much variety depend on subject and purpose. For instance, when you repeat the same point or develop a series of parallel ideas, the similarity of subject is enhanced of sentence structure. Thus Adams repeats the same pattern in his second through seventh sentences because they have much the same content, detailing the steps President Harding took to divert the scandal threatening his administration. Here the recurrent style evolves from the subject.

In the other passage, however, the writer makes no such connection between style and subject, and so the recurrence seems awkward and monotonous. The ideas expressed in the separate sentences are not of the same order of value. For example, the fact that the theater is in Hartford is less important than that it shows foreign films. The sentence style, in other words, does not reinforce the writer's ideas; it obscures them.

Nor has the writer offered any relief from his short, straightforward statements. Adams has. Moreover, Adams uses variety effectively to structure his paragraph, opening with a relatively long sentence, which, though grammatically simple, is complicated by the correlative but" con struction. And he closes the paragraph by beginning a sentence, for the first time, with something other than the subject.

Adams's brief sentences work because the subject justifies them and because they are sufficiently varied. Lacking similar justification or relief, the four sentences of the first passage are ineffective. They could be improved easily:

The Art Cinema, a movie theater in Hartford, specializes in foreign films. It is noted for the high quality of its films; in fact, many people consider them good art.

There is still recurrence: in effect the passage consists of three similar short clauses plus an appositive. But now there is more variety. In the first sentence an appositive interrupts subject and verb; in the second there are two clauses instead of one, the latter opening with the phrase "in fact." Subordinating the information about Hartford also keeps the focus where it belongs, on the films.

Of course, in composing a sentence that differs others, a writer is more concerned with emphasis than with variety. But if it is usually a by-product, variety is nonetheless important, an essential condition of interesting, readable prose. Let us consider, then, a few ways in which variety may be attained.

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