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When a series of sentences are constructued following the same structure, the writing can be inffective, awkward, or just boring. Compare the following passages.
My girlfriend is amazing. She is beautiful. She works at a pet store. She is shy.
My girlfriend is amazing. She is more than simply beautiful; she is celestial. If, by some strange chain of events, she proposed to me, I might say yes. But probably not. Even though she could stand to open up a bit, I love her anyway because she is a classy lady.
The first set of sentences is banal. The second set is slightly more palatable. The variation of sentence structures in the second set makes it more interesting to read and takes the ideas presented to a deeper level. Varying sentence length can also effectively emphasize certain points for a poignant, comedic, or another rhetorical effect. Just think of Rocky Balboa in Rocky II: instead of being predictably by throwing only left-handed punches, he learns to fight right-handed in order to keep Apollo Creed guessing. Of course we’re not trying to knock out our readers, but by varying sentence structure, we can keep readers engaged in reading what we have to say.
How can we vary sentence structure? There are four basic sentence types that you can consider. Try using different types of sentences for a more varied feel. Also note the types of variation within sentence types.
A simple sentence is an independent clause (a phrase that can stand by itself as a complete sentence) and has only one subject-verb combination.
Example: Rocky Balboa is the underdog with a heart of gold.
Example: Rocky and Mickey train hard for the fight.
Note that the subject or verb (or both) can be compound in a simple sentence, as in the second example.
A compound sentence has two or more independent clauses. It joins two sentences with closely related ideas with a semicolon, colon, or conjunction. (Conjunctions are words such as but, and, although, because, etc. See “Conjunctions” section on Comma Splices and Fused Sentences handout.)
Example: Rocky’s nickname is “The Italian Stallion,” and he earns that sobriquet with his passion.
Example: The long-awaited boxing match takes place on New Year’s Day; Creed has no idea what he’s in for.
In the first example, the two independent clauses are joined by the coordinating conjunction and; in the second, they are joined by a semicolon.
A complex sentence has an independent clause and at least one dependent clause (a phrase that has a subject and a verb but cannot stand by itself as a complete sentence). A dependent clause can precede, follow, or be in the middle of an independent clause.
Example: Even if Rocky doesn’t win the match, he’ll be satisfied if he can last fifteen rounds with Creed.
In the example above, a dependent clause precedes an independent clause. This type of construction uses the dependent clause as an introductory phrase, which is an adverbial or participle phrase at the beginning of a sentence that explains when, where, why, how, or under what circumstances the action of the sentence occurs.
Example: Sarah must go to the store today, although she may not be able to leave work early.
In the example above, the dependent clause follows after the independent clause.
Example: The movie starring Tom Cruise was very action packed.
Example: Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, was very action packed.
The above examples have dependent clauses in the middle of an independent clause. In the first of two examples, the dependent clause is a restrictive modifier (a word or phrase that modifies a noun and is essential to the meaning of the sentence). There are no commas around restrictive modifiers.
In the second sentence, the dependent clause is a nonrestrictive modifier, which contains information that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence, requiring a pair of commas to set it off from the surrounding text. (See Restrictive vs. Nonrestrictive Modifiers section on “Commas” for more information.)'
A compound complex sentence has two or more independent clauses, one or more dependent clause, and has two or more subject-verb combinations.
Example: When the match is finally over, Adrian runs down to the ring and Rocky embraces her instead of caring about the outcome of the match.
A dependent clause begins this sentence and is followed by two independent clauses joined by the coording conjunction and.
See how these principles can be applied to an academic paper:
Example: Some people cherish a romantic belief that, in its earliest form, the dog-and-man association was a hunting partnership. According to this notion, our hunter-gather ancestors of the middle Stone Age reached an implicit understanding with certain canines to cooperate in the chase: The dogs were faster and better armed, the humans were smarter and more devious, both groups were social communicators, and the meat could be shared. But it’s a fairy tale. No basis whatsoever in evidence. Reputable archaeologists guess, instead, that the dog’s first role in civilization was to eat garbage.
(Quammen, David. "The Descent of the Dog." From Reading to Revision. By Scott Rice. Belmont: Wadsworth, 1996. 227. Print.)
In this example, can you point out which sentences are simple, compound, complex, and compound complex? How is the variation of sentence structure logically or rhetorically effective? Notice that variation of sentence length also makes the paragraph more varied and interesting.
Longknife, Ann, K. D. Sullivan, and Marie L. Waddell. The Art of Styling Sentences: 20 Patterns for Success. 4th ed. Hauppauge, NY: Barron's, 2002. Print.
Amy Takabori, fall 2010.