For some writing, sentence variety will not matter as much. In short emails, in short memos, in some policy writing or some technical documents (especially instructions). However, writing that is longer and writing that you might worry people will stop paying attention to? Sentence variety is one trick you have as a writer to keep readers engaged.
On the last page, you got to take a brief look at some of your writing. To keep your reader engaged, varying your sentence lengths can wake them up a bit. If every sentence is about the same length, your writing could read like a song that always has the same exact beat…and that can be kind of boring, you know?
Varying sentence length at a key moment can emphasize something, too, that you want to be emphasized. For instance, perhaps you have several long sentences, and then all of a sudden have a sentence of three words. That violation of a pattern can emphasize whatever you put in that three word sentence.
Varying Sentences: Length and Using Phrases and Clauses
One way to vary sentences is to make them different lengths. You can do this by cutting or adding to them. You may intuitively have a sense to do this. Whether you do or do not, though, knowing the units of words is one way to help: adding/removing phrases, expanding a dependent clause into an independent clause as a new sentence, combining sentences into one sentence with multiple independent clauses, etc.
The Phrase: Missing a subject or a verb, but as a collection of words, has meaning potential.
Examples: The dog with the ball. From there, they went to the park.
The Clause: a subject and a verb (often also includes phrases and words that modify the subject and verb).
Examples: He [subj] ran [verb]. She [subj] jumped [verb] up and down [adverbial phrase]. They [subj] jumped [verb] high [adverb] before stopping for a break [prepositional phrase].
The Independent Clause: It forms a complete sentence and thought, but can have other words, phrases, or clauses that modify it.
Examples: He ran. They jumped high before stopping for a break.
The Dependent Clause: It has a subject and a verb, but it needs an independent clause to complete the thought.
Example: While they were tired, they were able to muster enough energy to complete the task.
Sentences: An independent clause or a combination of independent and dependent clauses.
Examples: [any of the examples for independent clause or the full sentence for dependent clause example]
Using phrases and clauses to change up your sentences gets us in the realm of sentence types.
The four types of sentences, based on structure, are (more at Purdue OWL with examples):
- [Also, the fragment–which is completely legitimate to use, especially to emphasize something since readers often don’t expect fragments]
Read through the Purdue OWL explanation of sentence types to learn the differences between them.
Varying your sentence types can create a different rhythm. Dependent clauses or phrases, for instance, can interrupt a sentence in ways that a simple sentence only made up of an independent clause cannot.
-He went to school.
-He went, after he dropped off library books at the library, to school.
Sentence Types and Proximity
Varying sentence types can draw ideas both closer together and further apart, which can have rhetorical effects:
Very Far: It was a rough day for Melissa. She had to cover a second shift for her friend at work. And now she was stranded. Because her car broke down. Great.
Far: It was a rough day for Melissa. She had to cover a second shift for her friend at work. Plus, now she was stranded at work because her car broke down.
Close: It was a rough day for Melissa, especially since she had to cover a second shift for her friend at work. Plus, now she was stranded at work because her car broke down.
Very Close: It was a rough day for Melissa, especially since she had to cover a second shift for her friend at work; now she was stranded in her broken down car.
Using em-dashes, along with semicolons and colons, can utilize proximity for purposes of emphasis.
–Very close with greater pause for dependent clause: It was a rough day for Melissa–especially since she had to cover a second shift for her friend at work; now she was stranded in her broken down car.
–Very close with longer pause for rhetorical triplet: It was a rough day for Melissa: she had to cover a second shift for her friend, her car broke down, and now she is stranded.
This punctuation guide website is a wonderful resource.
Much of this, too, depends on position in the sentence. Generally, the ranking of position of emphasis in English is:
- End of Sentence
- Beginning of Sentence
- Middle of Sentence
Generally speaking, whatever you want to emphasize should come at the end of the sentence. If you want to de-emphasize something, bury it in the middle in a dependent clause or some other way.
Keeping an idea by itself is more likely to be emphasized, especially if you are engaging in a good variety of sentences (otherwise, if just a bunch of simple sentences, the monotone rhythm will lose the emphasis).
Choose 2 paragraphs from your literacy narrative draft (you can choose the same 2 paragraphs from the activity on the last page if you want) and mark each sentence as a sentence type. You can use the comment function in Word or Adobe Reader. You could also use a separate piece of paper and use this template: Sentence 1 = [insert sentence type]. Count sentence types for each of 4 sentence types in those 2 paragraphs.
Think about the following:
- Do you notice any patterns? Do you tend to use a certain combination of types or is there a repetitive pattern that tends to happen (e.g., you often follow a complex or complex-compound sentence with 1-2 simple sentences)? If so, why do you think you do that? What does that do rhetorically? How does that pattern influence your reader?
- Do you notice any violations of patterns? (e.g., do you all of a sudden have a string of 6 simple sentences or two consecutive compound sentences somewhere but do there nowhere else?) Does that violation of a pattern do something rhetorically? How? Why?
Comment below with the following information:
- The number of sentence types for each sentence in those 2 paragraphs you selected.
- Note anything that stood out to you in terms of both the amount of each sentence type and the ordering of those sentence types (e.g., was there interesting placement of different sentence types next to each other?)
After commenting below, click on the “Click here to continue” button below.