Tuesday, July 10, 2018

What is a Sentence?

Photo by Sean Mason, via Flickr
Oxford English Dictionaries online defines a sentence as ”A set of words that is complete in itself, typically containing a subject and predicate, conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command, and consisting of a main clause and sometimes one or more subordinate clauses.”

In fiction, an enormous amount of leeway is given in sentence length and structure according to the novel’s genre. Short sentences increase tension in thrillers that feature fast-paced scenes. Dialogue-heavy fiction gives the author an opportunity to play with fragments and short, snappy exchanges. The secret is to understand what a sentence is before messing around with it.

One of greatest failings of modern education is the removal of sentence diagramming from the study of writing. Editor Linda Lane explored this topic in her Blood-Red Pencil post, Excuse Me, Please, I Need a Diagram. Linda noted, “Knowing the parts of speech helps us use words most effectively to create sentences that touch our readers and pull them into our stories.”

Authors in all genres use complex sentences with multiple dependent clauses and phrases as well as simple, short sentences. The writer, however, needs to be aware of his intended audience and avoid fancy words and sentence structure if his readers simply want a good story with interesting characters. Our sentences need to pull the reader into the action, drama, and setting without making her stop to admire a pretty arrangement of words.

The writer also needs to be aware of the editor’s eagle eye. Even though an incorrectly constructed sentence might be effective once or twice, habitual grammatical errors will brand the writer as an amateur.

My critique group recently had a discussion of sentence structure based on sentence length and complexity. One member translated this sentence from Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar to demonstrate a long and complicated sentence that holds together despite multiple clauses, parenthetical asides, and lots of commas:

"But the bad part, what made me so fearful and gave me such a burning shock, was, that the young man offered the girl his heart, which he said was young like hers, created to discover the distant, veiled moments of bliss in this world (that’s how he expressed it) and in whose invigorating company (how could I not have recognized the ‘invigorating company’!) she should strive towards the golden prospect of everlasting togetherness (I am quoting verbatim) and undying weaving love in close togetherness.”

Contrast this with the first sentence from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Then compare that short, effective statement with a later observation the narrator makes about her dream. "And there were other trees as well, trees that I did not recognize, squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet earth, along with monster shrubs and plants, none of which I remembered."

Ernest Hemingway was the master of the short sentence. In his short story, The Killers, he wrote: "Outside it was getting dark. The street-light came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu."

A writer accustomed to reading the longer, more complicated sentences of Mann or du Maurier might want to emulate their styles but not know the grammar rules that would prevent short cuts such as a run-on sentence, a string of sentences connected by conjunctions, or even a comma-splice: Outside it was getting dark, the street-light came on outside the window, the two men at the counter read the menu.

We like to play with sentences when writing fiction, but it’s important to learn and understand good writing before we wander off to do our own thing. To read more about run-on sentences and comma splices as well as other grammar issues, check out the online Guide to Grammar and Writing from Capital Community College Foundation.

For a few tips on reviewing your own sentences during your self-editing process, read Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Fine-Tuning Sentence Structure, one of the posts in my self-editing series.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017), a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards.

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

19 comments :

  1. Let's hear it for diagramming!

    You also are right about knowing your audience. I recently read an authorized Agatha Christie creation that was simply too well written to be Christie. Loved her books but never read for the prose.

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    1. I didn't even know there were AG creations written by other authors. That's interesting. I suppose using the same characters and keeping to the traditional mystery "rules" would make such a novel acceptable for fans. If so, I'd like to see writers tackle new Mrs. Pollifax mysteries. I loved those stories.

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  2. Sophie Hannah's The Monogram Murders brings back Poirot.

    More Mrs. Pollifax books would be great fun!

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  3. This is interesting, Pat! I couldn't agree more about the need for a solid understanding of writing and sentence structure before one plays sentence creations. That's why I like the idea of doing a lot of reading, as well as writing, to get a strong feel for structure.

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    1. Hi Margot! I've been doing a lot of editing lately (of my own work) and notice I stray from the rules much more than I used to. It's good for me to review once in a while.

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  4. And some of us are more than aware we will never write a long, complicated sentence such as the example sentence. Which is good!

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    1. LOL -- I don't write like that either, Alex. Knowing your audience is important, and few of us write for the literary crowd. Even so, knowing sentence construction inside and out makes us better writers even while we're messing with the structure and playing with the language.

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  5. Writers use words like painters use oils. Whether the picture is on canvas or in the mind of a reader, it creates the desired response — or not. Words are our paint; sentences are the brushes. We must use them well if we want our readers to find the masterpieces in our works. This means learning to write proper sentences. Once we've mastered the rules, we can on occasion break them with impunity — and great effectiveness.

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    1. Linda, I have often compared writing to painting, but never quite as perfectly as you did - "words are out paint; sentences the brushes." Love that.

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    2. Except it should be "words are our paint..." Not out paint. LOL

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  6. What a terrific reminder that we should always be aware of craft on so many levels as we are writing.

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    1. I need that reminder myself, especially when I'm in the self-editing phase of a manuscript.

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  7. The best writers craft language. Revising your manuscript at the sentence level is hard work, but I think it pays off in the end. Learning how to skillfully craft sentences is the best time and money I have invested in writing. I highly recommend the Great Courses Building Great Sentences. There is a big difference between run-ons and spectacular cumulative sentences.

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    1. This is so true, Diana! Sometimes when I read a really great writer's book, I wonder how much comes naturally and how much from years of study and practice. For me, sentence level revisions are critical for everything from structure to word repetitions.

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    2. "There is a big difference between run-ons and spectacular cumulative sentences."

      Terrific point, Diana. And I do believe those are carefully crafted, not just thrown out there.

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  8. Great post, Pat. I went to school during the time of diagramming sentences. It's a shame if they don't do it anymore. I often find myself cutting long sentences because they tend to be more powerful. Maybe my attention span has shortened over the years, but if I keep having to go back to the beginning of the sentence for clarity, that's a book-closer or when my eyes droop. My books are full of dialogue. People don't talk in long, complicated sentences. I find the ones who do are trying to impress the listener with their command of the English language. Kudos to them if they get their point across without turning off the listener/reader.

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    1. It fascinates me when I do find a very long sentence in modern fiction. Some writers can pull it off, but it doesn't work well with thrillers, and as you said, doesn't work with dialogue (especially in a culture that communicates with emojis). :D

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  9. This is a great column, Pat. I linked it on my author page, and hope many people will read it because it's so helpful.

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