By Terry McLean
As an English as an Additional Language (EAL) teacher, I find that many students struggle with the use of sentence variety. The following information and advice is my attempt at trying to reach teen and young adult learners as they strive to become better writers. My goal is to help students understand and master sentence structure patterns so that they can use them in their future academic careers. The topic is light, but once the patters have been solidified, students can use them for more advanced topics such as health, business, or politics.
Writing teachers, like me, are notoriously famous for dishing out homework assignments, and some students somehow forget or inadvertently avoid doing them until the last minute. Alas, procrastination lingers and students panic. Nevertheless, the paragraph, essay or story won’t write itself, so we tell our students that they have to discipline themselves, sit down and get their thoughts down on paper or screen. Well, that’s fine and dandy, but when people write in a hurry, it comes out like spoken language, and there is neither rhyme nor reason to rambling sentences and punctuation.
Some writers might go the choppy route and use too many simple sentences, while others might try to dazzle the reader with meandering run-on sentences, which does not always get the message across. The point is this: writers need to craft their messages, and this involves, among other things, good sentence structure and variety.
Oh, but how can our students be confused? We dazzled them with such sagacity and prowess! Well, some were surely listening, but others may have attended class in body only. I can empathize. Let’s be honest: sentence structure time is not the most thrilling part of the day for many people. Therefore, maybe the students need a refresher on phrases, clauses, and sentence types, but this time let’s sprinkle in some more interesting examples about the most awesome characters in the history of horror films: zombies.
First of all, here is some basic information to share with students about phrases and clauses:
- A phrase is a group of two or more words that express a single idea but don’t usually form a complete sentence.
- a fabulous zombie
- in the garden
- An independent clause contains a subject, a verb, and a complete thought.
- Zombies aren’t the sharpest crayons in the box.
- That zombie is wearing a tutu and a cowboy hat.
- A dependent clausecontains a subject and a verb, but no complete thought
- If you ever meet up with a zombie
- while the zombies were chasing
Now, let’s use this knowledge and tackle the fabulous four types of English sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex:
1.A SIMPLE SENTENCE has one independent clause.
- Hanna loathes zombies
- Both Tabitha and Keiko are crazy about zombie movies.
- Tabitha and Keiko saw an ill-mannered zombie in the kitchen.
- Naturally, they took selfies with it.
- The incredibly thoughtless and unfashionable zombie clumsily entered my cramped living room.
- I fainted.
2. A COMPOUND SENTENCE has two independent clauses joined by
A. a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so),
B. a conjunctive adverb (e.g. however, therefore), or
C. a semicolon
- Ky is fascinated by zombies, but Hanna hates them.
- Max turned into a zombies; therefore,Hanna hates him
- Max eats brains; Hanna wants to keep hers.
3. A COMPLEX SENTENCE has one dependent clause joined to an independent clause.
- After Max turned into a zombie, Hanna immediately ran away.
- Hanna immediately ran away after Max turned into a zombie.
- Max, who was a dapper fellow, somehow turned into a gnarly zombie.
- Zombies that can speak are not proper zombies.
4. A COMPOUND-COMPLEX SENTENCE has two independent clauses joined to one or more dependent clauses.
- Hanna realized that Max was a zombie, so she decided to avoid his company.
- George Romero, who directed the best zombie films, was wonderfully creative; therefore, he was my hero.
- Many zombie films and TV series have been made over the years, but the best ones are those of George Romero because his stories focus on the living rather than the dead.
Source of definitions:
After the students have a better handle on how to use phrases, clauses, and sentence types, the trick is to put them together into a paragraph. This is where writers need one key ingredient – variety. A good paragraph is made up of a variety of sentence types. How about this?
The Allure of Zombies
Zombies are the scariest horror film characters. Although there is a diverse array of frightening ne’er-do-well creatures who haunt, chase, and devour, zombies are by far the gnarliest. They crave human flesh, and they don’t stop chasing. Indeed, zombies will even drag themselves toward unsuspecting potential meals. The fact that zombies see us as a delicacy is unsettling, especially if one of them is a (former) relative. Also, a zombie bite can turn you into a zombie, and this is what people fear the most because nobody wants to become a member of the walking dead. That would be worse than a bad hair day . Moreover, living among zombies requires cooperation or competition with other humans; we need to deal with both trust and betrayal. So, whether they are in Dawn of the Dead or The Walking Dead, zombies force us to confront our own fears. That is scary, deep, and alluring.
Yellow – simple sentence
Purple – compound sentence
Green – complex sentence
Grey – compound-complex sentence
Overall, a piece of writing depends on the author’s purpose, audience, and tone. Wordsmithing involves manipulating vocabulary, but the vocabulary can become more effective with appropriate sentence variety. From academic vocabulary and complex structures to clear language and concise sentences, sentence variety is essential in any form of writing. Variety is the spice of life, and sentence variety is the spice of writing, especially if the writer can catch and keep the attention of the audience.
In this word document, I used colors to show the different clauses and sentence types. Animators would certainly have wonderfully better ideas to show the different parts of sentences.
Options and Additional Ideas
Once students have figured out the different sentence types, now they need to decide when and how to use them. This, of course, depends on one’s purpose, audience, voice, and tone.
- For example, simple sentences can be useful in business for advertising:
Keep it simple, stupid – Advertisers will use simple sentences (or phrases) to catch attention:
Just do it – Nike
I’m lovin’ it – MacDonald’s
Have a break. Have a KitKat – Rowntree
Taste the rainbow – Skittles
It keeps going, and going, and going… – Energizer batteries
- Simple and complex sentences are often used for writing about a process or steps:
First, boil some water. Next, add the pasta. – simple
After the pasta gets soft, drain the water. – complex
Share the pasta with a friend because food is better with company. – complex
- On the other hand, you can even choose between compound or complex to say basically the same thing:
I didn’t have breakfast, so I am hungry. – compound (cause/effect)
I am hungry because I didn’t have breakfast. – complex (effect/cause)
- Writers and speakers can use variety for different purposes. Two brilliant examples of varying style come from Martin Luther King Jr.
First, Martin Luther King Jr. used a powerful simple sentence to get the attention of America. This simple sentence is clear and holds our attention. A powerful declaration that he repeated over and over to emphasize is point:
I have a dream.
Second, Martin Luther King Jr. used an extremely long sentence in the 11th paragraph of his Letter from Birmingham Jail. This paragraph has a sentence that is at least 16 lines long. King uses this style to give the reader the experience of reading an almost never-ending sentence—maybe to emphasize the long struggle that African American people in Birmingham had been experiencing and to send out a powerful call for change.