The construction and use of sentences is one of the most challenging aspects of the English language. The many rules that were paraded during our school days, seem, at times to act as a barrier to effective writing.
Combinations of Words?
Forming sentences is at the heart of writing. This is is in contrast to speaking, which is more free flowing and much less formal. This can be a great challenge or barrier. Conventional wisdom teaches us many things about building sentences, which include:
- A sentence is a group of words that make sense when combined.
- They contain one or more clauses.
- Correct punctuation must be used.
- You must include a verb and a subject.
- They can contain subjects and objects.
- Sentences should be between 8 and 17 words in length.
- If longer than 25, or 30 words, then you should break them down to aid readability.
Of course a large number of grammar rules exist for the English language (as for any language) and they exist for good reason. Rules should not, generally, be broken. Many of the basic structure rules for sentences are, in my view, limiting. Why must a sentence be limited to 30 words? I have read many very effective sentences that are over a hundred words in length yet are still a joy to read.
Some writers are master crafters of the sentence will always build, and combine, their clauses to aid the flow of the story being told. They will craft beautiful works of art with their words.
One of the basic tools a child uses are bricks with letters painted on them, used to build words. Imagine for one moment that instead of having letters, they had popular words painted on each side. Grabbing ten to fifteen word-bricks and throwing them in the same way you would a set of dice, will create a word sequence but it is unlikely to create a viable sentence. The order words are used in does matter, in fact it matters very much indeed.
Which may explain why some people find it extremely challenging to write. At the same time others use words, play with them, make them flow, to tell a story in an elegant and powerful way. Both are selecting words from the same tool-set, the English language. Yet one finds sentence construction a chore and the other finds it a joy and searches for new words and combinations to help them put together a story.
Anyone can learn to build more powerful sentences, they simply need to try. Everyone has a story to tell (a novel sitting in their mind) they need to learn how to construct the sentences necessary to tell that story. Life is complicated and has many twists and turns, which should be reflected in sentences created. Some must be short and simple. Others need to be longer and more complex, but when you make them longer you must also make them more interesting.
As sentence building is at the core of the writer’s craft, there are many ways in which they can be used. As dictated by the needs of the work, the feelings, the emotions, etc., etc., a sentence can grow, or remain very short, and truth is each has their purpose. Few people will ever write a sentence of 958 words, but if well constructed a writer can convey a distinct message through those words and indeed when long sentences are used they should bear the reader in mind, pausing when necessary through the use of commas, semi-colons or colons, such pauses are used to emphasise things along the way, but should never be boring; that is the point where you will lose the reader.
Every writer should learn to use powerful and meaningful sentences at the heart of conveying their ideas. They should open a reader’s mind about what is possible. Well crafted sentences can be used to:
- Advance one or more propositions.
- Convey rhetoric and arguments.
- Grow or contract.
- Have a natural rhythm.
- Build up cumulatively.
- Explain and compare.
- Be suspensive, and
- Create your distinct prose style.
Improve the Power of the Words You Use
These are all tools to be used in order to leverage the power of sentences and to help any writer improve the power of their words.
Sentences should be shaped by their content and be driven by a purpose, in truth, no amount of rules or limiting protocols can prepare writers to tackle the infinite ways in which sentences may be constructed to convey specific meaning. Don DeLillo nailed it when talking about the tasks of a writer: “I construct sentences,” he builds them using words.
But what he does not mention is that in doing so writers can convey complex ideas and philosophies. Whether the content is boring or exciting is a matter of how the sentence is constructed, the words used.
What do you think about sentence construction? Do you use long sentences, or are you afraid? Think about it then make a comment giving your view.
Buy Peter B. Giblett a coffee to thank him for the thoughts expressed here. All images used here come from royalty free or public domain image collections, such as Pixabay.