Variety is the Spice

I have long used and recommended Thomas Kane’s New Oxford Guide to Writing (Oxford, 1988) as a first composition textbook after a thorough review of English grammar. In chapter 19, Kane illustrates the design of seven sentence styles, some familiar to all of us and others a surprise when we understand how the basic elements of language—word, phrase, and clause—can be arranged in distinctive ways.

The point of taking time to understand how to construct a sentence is variety—for our reader’s sake and for our own. Both reader and writer know that the world whirls almost phantasmagorically, and if we’re not confident in doing much more than saying this is this and that is that, we and our reader will tire out together before long. The world we share is not a simple place. Things are not what they appear to be (at least not in language) because we can regard something, or what appears to be some one thing, from an almost endless number of perspectives. What we see and want to put a word to never exists alone, and so how much of the context, the world around what we’re talking about, do we include in our remarks? And how do we proportion all the many things, so called, in a scene? We can begin to get things under control by keeping our eye on the form—the design or style—of our sentences.

To see how varying our sentences can change just what our reader sees, let’s imagine three simple things: a warm summer evening, a setting sun, and the desire of some friends to take a walk. The first of Kane’s sentence designs is called the segregating style. To segregate means etymologically to separate something from the crowd, and when we apply that idea to grammar, it means to make one assertion sentence by sentence. Expressed in segregated sentences, then, our three ideas would look like this: The evening was warm. The sun was setting. We wanted to take a walk. A segregated style of multiple simple sentences like this can be dramatic, but not so much when what we’re talking about is more descriptive than actional. Most of us, I’m sure, would find this triplet overly objective, the isolation having taken away the human moment. So on the assumption that we’re not talking about automatons in a dystopic world, how could we otherwise compose these three ideas to produce another effect?

We could, for example, go straight into the opposite direction and put all three ideas into one rollicking sentence: The evening was warm, and the sun was setting, and we wanted to take a walk. You can sense a heightened spirit here, an excitement replacing the ponderous objectivity of the three segregated statements we first chose. And if we wanted not just to rollick but frolic, we could smile at the grammarian’s rules and jump over the commas: The evening was warm and the sun was setting and we wanted to take a walk. With either of these compound designs (called, Kane reminds us, polysyndeton), we’ve chosen rhythm over rectitude, and the picture we’ve drawn in words for our reader has changed from the expectedly meditative to an almost childlike readiness to play, no matter what the circumstances.

Or we could take a cue from the mathematicians and apply the associative property to make one sentence of two clauses and one of one: The evening was warm and the sun was setting. We wanted to take a walk. And if that leaves the logical connection between the two sentences not clear enough, we could alter the order of the clauses and add the conjunction but to put the first assertion into opposition with the group of two that follows (and yes, we can begin a sentence with but): We wanted to take a walk. But the evening was warm and the sun was setting. Or we could return to composing one sentence, but this time with a subordinate construction to complicate the thinking and return the reader to a more discursive mood where the logical connection of the ideas is explicit: We wanted to take a walk, but the evening was warm and the sun was setting. A balanced rhythm now returns, too.

All of these are small variations with oversize consequences. The choices we have, if not endless, are many more than we might expect or use. Kane’s treatment (still in print) is an excellent place to start in learning the changes we can ring to a sentence—surprising both our reader and ourselves.


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1 Comment

  1. “we’re not talking about automatons in a dystopic world”
    This reminds me of the novel 1984.

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