January 9, 2012

back to basics: sentence structure

Today, I’m going to do a crash course on sentence structure. Like I said before, to most of the readers of this blog, this is probably old hat, but for writers just starting out, it could be the difference between them writing a story that needs a lot of technical work and a story that needs only a little work (because, let’s face it, every story needs work, no matter how long we’ve been writing). That’s really the point of this whole series.

So, sentence structure. The English language is a beautiful thing. We have a limitless number of words to work with, and probably just as many ways to organize them. Experienced writers have learned how to do this, either by schooling, training, or trial-and-error, and they’ve learned that the more effective the sentences are, the more effective the story is. It’s entirely possible to have an excellent story, but with a lack of proper writing know-how, the story might never be read. Technical issues can turn a reader off a story, even if they don’t know why. So, in order to improve our writing, we have to know the rules of the English language so that we can use them effectively. And then, we can break them.

Parts of Speech

Sentences are made up by the parts of speech—nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and articles—which work together to create meaning. Actually knowing the words won’t be much help to us. To be perfectly honest, it took me a minute to remember what an article was. The names aren’t important, but knowing how to craft a sentence is.

The basic parts of a sentence are the subject, verb, and object. A sentence is a complete unit of thought and requires these pieces in order to be “complete”. It conveys information, beginning with a capital letter and ending with standard punctuation. The subject is usually a noun—a person, place, or thing. The verb conveys what the subject is doing, the action of the sentence. The object is receiving the action. Grandma knit a sweater. Noun = Grandma. Verb = knit. Object = sweater. Simple stuff.

There’s no point in me doing more examples, because it would take me longer to explain, and this is stuff you should know, though you may have forgotten. If you want examples, here is a list of worksheets and a page summarizing the parts of speech. And here is a fantastic source on sentence combining, which will teach you more than I ever could. I’m not an English teacher.

Sentence Variation

Now there are several different ways to convey a complete sentence. My personal style is simple and repetitive. I also love lists and modifiers. And starting sentences with conjunctions. Oh, and fragments, too. I know the rules of the English language, and I know when it’s acceptable to break them. Fiction is a bit more lenient than the academic scene. Fiction depends on voice and style, which I’ll cover later on.
There are four basic sentence types: simple, compound, complex, and compound complex.

Simple sentences contain no conjunction (and, but, or, etc.).

  • Bob came over to watch a movie.
  • Valerie met her boyfriend at the coffee shop.
  • My neighbors grow their own vegetables.

Compound sentences contain two statements that are connected by a conjunction.

  • I wanted to watch The Princess Bride, but Bob and Aaron wanted to watch a science fiction film.
  • Valerie ordered a nonfat latte, and her boyfriend ordered black coffee and a slice of pumpkin bread.
  • Last year, our neighbors grew too many tomatoes, so they gave some to us.

Complex sentences contain an independent clause (the part of a sentence that can stand on its own) and a dependent clause (the part that would be considered “incomplete” if it was on its own). The two clauses are connected by a subordinator (which, who, although, despite, since, etc.).

  • Despite my mother’s insistence that I attend the local community college, I went to college in another state.
  • Marie was supposed to meet me at the bookstore on Wednesday, which we’ve done every week since I moved to her department.
  • My dog, although he may not seem like it, is a wizard.

Compound complex sentences contain at least one dependent clause and more than one independent clause. The clauses are connected by both conjunctions and subordinators.

  • My father, who wanted me to go to the best college we could afford, argued with my mother, and eventually, they agreed that the out-of-state college was best for me.
  • If she caught the flu, which is going around at work, I wouldn’t blame her for not showing, but we were supposed to go over our plans for next week’s office party.
  • Our dog tries to hide his powers from us, but I’ve caught him levitating a plate of chicken from the counter to the floor, which he profusely denied doing.

It’s good to vary your sentences between these four types. If you use the same sentence structure repeatedly, a story can quickly become monotonous. Bob came over to watch a movie. I wanted to watch The Princess Bride. Bob and Aaron wanted to watch a science fiction film. And so on so forth. You can see that a story using nothing but simple sentences can quickly become uninteresting.

Hopefully, you now have a rudimentary understanding of basic sentences. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. The next post will cover punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and common grammar mistakes.

Happy writing!

1 comment:

  1. Hey, Brooke. I don't know if you go for this sort of thing, but I mentioned you for a Versatile Bloggers Award over on my site. I've really enjoyed reading your blog, and just wanted to say thanks. http://surlymuse.com/its-versatile-its-a-blogger-its-a-versatile-blogger-award/ Cheers.