by Eric Wharton
A playland filled with poor sentence structure.
Writers love words. We love the diversity of meanings and the subtle differences that words evoke. Even as we sleep, words fire across the synapses of our brains forming ideas. It's only when we face the hard reality of stringing words together in a meaningful manner that we tend to fail the reader.
It's not that writers don't know how to write sentences. It's just that sometimes we download our brains so quickly that all those beautiful words trip over an endless array of prepositions, adjectives, and adverbs in our attempt to evoke the proper imagery.
So, to offer a little help, I've opened this small amusement park of poor sentence structure. Hopefully the rides will remind you, as they have me, of what not to do.
The Choo-Choo Train
When I play with my grandson, he likes to string together an almost endless array of boxcars to form a train as long as he possibly can. After all, what fun is there in playing with a short train. But if you translate that into sentence structure, the outcome can be awful.
Choo-choo train sentences are a blend of heavy verbs or clauses strung together with prepositions, such as 'of', 'an', 'to', 'of the', and 'that', to name a few. Sometimes a sentence grows so long that when it comes to a grade (like a serious point), it slows to a crawl.
Here is a good example of a choo-choo train sentence:
Sally's plan for using the over-active libido of young men for production of characteristics of desirable quality to produce viable offspring was an outgrowth of her upbringing of dubious nature.
I think Sally had something dirty in mind, but I can't quite tell, and I'm not sure I want to know. Notice the controlling verb 'was'—a weak little engine in the middle trying to push and pull all those heavy boxcars linked by prepositional hitches.
Also beware, the choo-choo train sentence can become a runaway train. By the time you reach the period at the end, it's apparent that the author has lost control and the sentence has ended in a train wreck. There is nothing left to do but begin picking up the bodies (trash it and start over).
This brings up the question: how long should you make a sentence? The simple, but vague, answer is as long as it needs to be. A good rule of thumb is that if you are using short words, sentences can be longer. If you use longer words, keep sentences short. However, tone also comes into play. If what you're writing has action, you'll want shorter, more choppy sentences. If it's a thoughtful piece that you want the reader to move slowly through, longer sentences with strung together clauses is more appropriate.
Finally, be sure to always use a strong engine—an active verb that can handle the load. If you use a passive verb, don't load it down with many heavy clauses. If your verb is more active, it can pull a longer sentence.
The Roller Coaster
Roller coasters are fun to ride, unless they are designed by writers whose sentences are so out of control that they lurch up and down with no regard to reader comprehension. No one expects their safety to be compromised on an amusement park ride, which is exactly what happens with roller coaster sentences. Readers often aren't able to get to the brake at the end of the ride (the period) before spinning off into space and crash landing into a bloody heap.
The following is a sentence by William Faulkner, a noted American author from the 20th century. It's difficult to fault writing in a Pulitzer Prize work of fiction, but 21st century writing requires more than just punctuation for our shorter attention spans. I'm not sure you will be able to reach the end of this ride without stopping to re-read part of it. I couldn't.
This, out of a daydream's idle unexpectation, because the lawyer did not really expect ever to see either of them, since the owner of the Federal Government would indubitably catch them first, right up to the morning of the seventh day when there was a knock at the jail's kitchen door--a knock not much louder than audibility, yet, quite firm; and, firm, yet not at all peremtory: just polite, courteous and firm: a knock not often heard at the back door of the small Missouri jail, nor even quite at the back door of an Arkansas or Louisiana or Mississippi plantation home, where it might sooner have been at home, the turnkey's wife wiping her hands on her apron as she turned from the sink and opened the door on a middle-ageless Negro man in a worn brushed frock-coat and carrying a napless tophat, whom she did not recognise because she had not expected to see him there, possibly because he was alone, the boy, the child still standing five minutes later just inside the mouth of the alley beside the jail, where neither her nor the old one gave any sign of recognition whatever, although his grandfather--handcuffed now to the turnkey--actually brushed him in passing. (1)
I find it difficult to offer advice how to correct this kind of sentence, except to break the multiple shifts in perspective and transform them into paragraphs of shorter sentence length. But then, I'm no William Faulkner, so I won't even try.
Simply stated, avoid lengthy sentences that seem to go up and down with no real sense of direction. You don't have to show off how much of the English language you know. Write to be understood.
There are many amusement rides today that defy your brain's ability to think logically. Up becomes down, down becomes sideways, sideways makes you turn inside out, sometimes literally. These are rides that play games with your perspective of the physical world around you. Sentences are no different.
A common problem in sentence construction is being logical with thoughts. All sentences have a subject and a verb, but they often don't have the RIGHT subject or verb idea.
Poor: After a year outside, the growth of her flowers began to approach that of those grown in the greenhouse.
Let's become a forensic wordologist for a moment and dissect this sentence. The subject is 'growth', the verb is 'approach' and the object is 'those' (which refers to her greenhouse flowers). Instead of treating us to the beauty of how flowers grow, the author has entangled us in fuzzy concepts about growth approaching something.
Better: After a year outside, her flowers grew like those grown in the greenhouse.
This is more logical. It wasn't the growth that began to grow better, it was the flowers. True, it's more fun for your insides do flips, like the Corkscrew, but your story is no amusement ride. Test every sentence for logic.
For many adults, the Merry-Go-Round is a boring ride. Small kids love it at first, but only until they get introduced to the wilder rides. Then you can't drag them back even if you paid them. The reason: all it does is go around. The tinny drum doesn't help, either.
In writing, the sentence with misplaced stress is like the carousel. It seems to travel in a circle and the reader can't understand where the emphasis should be.
Here is a good example ...
The scruffy-looking shrubs grown by local landscapers were thrown away at Tri-County landfill.
The emphasis of a sentence is always at the end. Here, the first impression by the reader is that there is something special about the landfill. There is not, and so the reader goes searching for the emphasis and ends up asking "What was thrown away at the landfill?" The answer is the shrubs, and the reader ends up back at the beginning of the sentence. Reading again, the reader may wonder if the scruffy-looking shrubs were grown on purpose by landscapers. Of course not, so the reader continues searching for emphasis, and ends up going around and around.
The subject of the sentence is the shrubs, and the point to be stressed is that they are scruffy looking—to such a degree that they had to be thrown away. It's like building a sentence with a proper foundation; all that's left is to add the finishing touches ...
The shrubs, grown by local landscapers, were scruffy looking and had to be thrown away at Tri-County Landfill.
The Bumper Cars
The physics of bumper cars conform to Newton's Third Law of Motion: for every action there is and equal and opposite reaction. Ram your bumper car into another, and you'll feel the opposite reaction right down to your toes.
The best part of riding bumper cars is looking for the driver that's a sitting duck. It's usually the little kid who can't quite reach the foot pedal. He is exerting zero inertia, so you can slam him good.
If a sentence has multiple independent clauses, like bumper cars they must both be moving forward or one's likely to get slammed. Leave off a subject or a verb and the sentence stalls.
Poor: Judy loves nature and eager to take a hike through the woods.
Logically, this sentence contains two independent clauses, but it's missing the subject in the second independent clause.
Better: Judy loves nature, and she's eager to go for a hike through the woods.
In addition, since these are two independent clauses joined by a conjunction, punctuation must be used to separate them.
Step into the twister and you'll find your head spinning. You may even find yourself transported through time.
We are inundated with sentence twisters on a daily basis. News articles are filled with items where time can suddenly twist. The following is an example you must surely have heard on the evening news ...
"The President returns to the White house tomorrow."
He returns tomorrow? Isn't 'returns' present tense? Time has definitely twisted. Hopefully he WILL return tomorrow.
FIVE DIE IN APARTMENT FIRE, screamed the headlines.
Unless you are watching it happen, time has twisted again. Most likely the fire has already happened and should read FIVE DIED IN APARTMENT FIRE.
The difficulty is one of perspective. Most authors write in the present, and sometimes their writing reflects that perspective. Be wary of this when you are writing a story. Keep in mind when your reader will be reading it and make the tense appropriate.
The Star Wars Ride
To get technical for a moment, this involves accidence versus syntax. Accidence applies to the inflection of words. In classical languages the endings of words dictated inflection, and hence their meaning. Because of that, the object of the sentence came first (with it's appropriate clauses), and the subject/verb come at the end of the sentence to describe the actor and action upon said object. In the English language, many word endings became lost, so word order--or syntax--took on more importance. Our basic thought pattern in modern English is subject/verb/object.
The easiest way to explain this is to compare the way we speak with the way that Yoda, from the Star Wars movies, would speak.
For example, Yoda would say ...
Judge me by my size you should not.
You and I would say ...
Don't judge me by my size.
Yoda would say ...
To you a new task I give.
You and I would say ...
I give to you a new task.
In the latter example, 'I' is the subject, 'give' is the verb, and 'task' is the object. Yoda is actually speaking with classically correct grammar. Yet it sounds awkward.
The lesson is clear. To write in order to be understood, write the natural way in which your readers think, even if not correct grammatically.
The House of Mirrors
Did you ever walk into a house of mirrors that reflected false images? Sometimes you look thinner than you are, sometimes wider. The same can be said of adjectives. Using too many adjectives to modify a noun can leave a false impression. For example ...
Roger showed Dottie a valid landlord complaint.
What does this sentence mean? As a reader, I'm not quite sure. Roger may have a complaint written by the landlord against Dottie. Or, Roger may have written a complaint against the landlord.
To conform to the former meaning, write it as ...
Roger showed Dottie a valid complaint against the landlord.
If the latter was the meaning, write it as ...
Roger showed Dottie a valid complaint written by the landlord.
To avoid confusion, try to avoid using more than one adjective. Think of how the sentence looks to the reader. If it offers an accurate reflection of what you want to say, the mirror you're using to create a world for the reader gives no false reflection.
The Snake Pit
Adverbs are slimy creatures. They are slippery, slithery things that can wind around a sentence to modify different parts of speech. The proper placement of an adverb is after what it modifies, but writers often allow them to slip into the wrong place.
Poor: Rosa's flowers quickly grew.
(quickly cannot modify Rosa's flowers--it makes no sense)
Better: Rosa's flowers grew quickly.
(quickly modifies how they grew--it influences the main verb)
Misplacement of adverbs affect more than just the clarity of a sentence. They can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Here is a perfect example:
Slowly, the settlers began moving west.
(the action of the settlers occurred slowly)
The settlers slowly began moving west.
(the settlers may have been slower than others moving west--maybe trappers moved faster)
The settlers began slowly moving west.
(the settlers began slowly, but may have sped up later on)
The settlers began moving slowly west.
(once the settlers began moving, they moved slowly)
The settlers began moving west slowly.
(something about the west made them move slowly--maybe they moved south more quickly)
Take care where you place modifiers. They can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Don't let them slither up and bite you in a bad place.
The Tunnel of Love
In the the tunnel of love, you can't see what happens during the middle of the ride, all you see is lovers entering the tunnel and then leaving. Yet it's not the beginning or ending that is most important--its what happens in the middle, in the dark, in the quiet secluded places where meaning can be found.
Sometimes writing can be like the tunnel of love, where too much focus is placed on the beginning and ending of sentences. This involves two rules that English teachers love to teach us not to do--rules that have misled us about what good sentence structure is about.
Our English teachers have been like over-protective parents giving us a stern look as we descend into the tunnel to experience what makes us happy, and slapping our hands as we exit, chastising us for what we shouldn't have done. I think its time we dispel these constraints on our love life, and the best place to start is at the beginning.
THE CONJUNCTION AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SENTENCE
It's probably hard to find an English teacher who refuses to recite the litany: never begin a sentence with a conjunction, such as 'and' or 'but'. Like good old Uncle Buck who tells you its okay to kiss regardless of what your parents say, I'm here to tell you that it's okay to use these linkages to get ideas across.
In much the same way we link paragraphs together with transitional thoughts, we link sentences together with transitional phrases. And this is not something of modern development (did I really begin that sentence with 'and'?). If you doubt me, consider the following paragraph from D.H. Lawrence:
He was perverse too. He fought her off, he always fought her off. The more she strove to bring him to her, the more he battled her back. And they had been lovers now, for years. Oh, it was so wearying, so aching; she was so tired. But still she believed in herself. She knew he was trying to leave her. She knew he was trying to break away from her finally, to be free. But still she believed in her strength to keep him, she believed in her own higher knowledge. His own knowledge was high, she was the central touchstone of truth. She only needed his conjunction with her. (2)
Please disregard the advice that you shouldn't begin a sentence with a conjunction. While no one wants to see every sentence begin with 'but', never think it inappropriate to do so. Just don't overdo it.
THE PREPOSITION AT THE END OF THE SENTENCE
This is one of the silliest rules to have been passed down since classical times. Scholars were well-versed in classical languages like Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Yet they had little grasp of Teutonic languages like German, which is the basis for much of the English language.
The word preposition comes from praeponere which means to place before. "Eureka!" the classical scholars must have concluded, all prepositions must come before and never at the end of a sentence. That may have worked in the classical languages, but it has no place in modern English (I can see all my English teachers clutching their hearts as I write this).
The flexibility of the English language comes from the ability to combine verbs with prepositions--a totally teutonic-language capability. For example, the verb put can be combined with prepositions to form new verbs: put out to sea, put over a deal, put in for a transfer, put on airs, put up with it ... the list goes on. These can all occur appropriately at the end of a sentence.
Winston Churchill once became annoyed by the habit of a Foreign Office secretary who religiously corrected every sentence in his speeches that ended with a preposition. Churchill sent one speech back with a notation in red ink containing the following comment:
This is the kind of pedantic nonsense up with which I will not put! (3)
Good English writers do not hesitate to end sentences with a preposition. However, notice the difference in these two sentence that end with a preposition.
We are such stuff as dreams are made of. (4)
I was driving the car our family used to go on vacations in.
In the first example from Shakespeare, 'of' is not really a preposition but a part of the verb, called an adverbial particle. It's linked to the verb 'made' and the two should never be separated. However, 'vacations in' is not even close to having an adverbial particle. It's just bad writing. In this case, the sentence should have been written: "I was driving the car in which our family used to go on vacations."
My grandson loves Thomas the Train, and goes around singing a song from one of the stories:
Percy feels put upon
Put upon, put upon.
Percy feels put upon,
Poor, poor, Percy.
Imagine if he had to go around singing:
Percy is upon, for which he feels put,
For which he feels put, for which he feels put.
Percy is upon, for which he feels put,
Poor, poor, Percy.
Poor, poor, Percy indeed. Remember, a preposition can often be the best way to end a sentence. Let your inner ear make the final determination, but once again, try not to overdo it.
The Bungee Jump
It's the last ride of the day. I know you've been avoiding it. You've heard the screams all day and have glanced up occasionally, wondering if you can do it. Is the adrenalin rush worth it?
You've had fun all day on some wild rides. Now comes the moment of truth. You decide it's time and stand at a precipice. You've thought your ideas through, and created the appropriate word imagery. You've tied them together with a rope you think will hold. Now is not the time for uncertainty.
Sentences are the threads of writing that hold everything together. They must be like thin, spider-web strands that are barely noticeable, yet strong enough to carry the entire weight of a story. One weak sentence, and your tale could end up just another wet spot on the pavement below.
Inspect each strand of the rope--each sentence for proper logic, syntax, agreement, and clarity. Now you're ready. Go ahead, take the plunge.
(1) Faulkner, William. A Fable. Random House, New York, NY. 1954.
(2) Lawrence, D. H. Women in Love. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. 1920.
(3) Churchill, Winston. Town Talk by Eva Hinton. Washington Post, 30 September 1946, p.12.
(4) Shakespeare, William. The Tempest (Act IV, Scene 1).
Blue, Tina. It's Usually Not Wrong to End a Sentence with a Preposition. In: www.grammartips.homestead.com/prepositions1.html, accessed 2006.
Hopper, Vincent F.; Gale, Cedric; Foote, Ronald C. Essentials of English, 4th ed., rev. by Benjamin W. Griffith. Barron's Educational Series, Inc., Hauppauge, NY. 1990.
Strunk, William Jr.; White, E.B. The Elements of Style, 3rd Edition. MacMillan Publishing Co., New York, NY. 1979.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well, 5th ed., rev. and updated. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY. 1994.