Vary your sentences and spice up more than your life

Sentences come in many guises. Some are long some are short. Legal sentences for instance, can go on for years, or at least it feels as if they do. Not to be outdone by mere law, some famous English novelists have done their best to pen lengthy syntax. According to Wikipedia, William Faulkner was a top contender with a sentence in his novel Absalom, Absalom!, which came in 1287 words.

He was pipped twice, however, by James Joyce in his novel Ulysses. His character, Molly Bloom has a soliloquy that contains not one, but two mammoth sentences, one of 11,281 words and the other of 12,931. And if you thought that sentences couldn’t possibly be any more marathon than that, along came Jonathan Coe with his novel The Rotter’s Club, and a sentence a whopping 13,955 words long.

Brett Easton Ellis (he of American Psycho fame and a particular favourite of mine) has mastered the art of long sentences by breaking every grammatical rule you can think of. Or, perhaps he doesn’t break them. Perhaps he understands them so well that he knows exactly how far to bend them before they break.

When used correctly, long sentences can be very effective. The trouble though, is that it’s very easy to come adrift in a long sentence, to lose your focus and fumble your way through to a messy end. The potential for knot tying is enormous, for both you and your reader.

Short sentences on the other hand can be choppy, curt and terse. They cause brain stutters if used too often. As in all life, a careful balance is ideal, but difficult to find. I like long sentences. I’m wordy. I can’t help it. Except I have to be able to help it if I want my writing to improve. And I do want my writing to improve, exponentially. So I’ve worked hard and I’ve managed to cut my uber-long sentences down to manageable lengths. I do indulge every now and then though, when I think I can get away with it.

The one-word sentence, to be used rarely and only when absolutely necessary. One-word sentences are usually commands, “No!”, “Now!” and Go!” They can also prompt a response, “Yes – “, “And – “. They can answer a question, “Yes.” “No.” And they can ask questions, “Why?” “Who?” “What?” “When?”

Having said that I like long sentences, I must also admit to a fondness for the one-word sentence. One-word sentences are emphatic and striking. But I respect them, and don’t abuse them. That’s one writing guideline I actually do follow.

But now let’s look at other guidelines that I find more malleable. Starting sentences with conjunctions for instance. This may have been a hard and fast rule at some time, but it’s been relaxed considerably as the English has grown and evolved. And I’m not making it up to validate what I do. If you don’t believe me check out the top 10 errors in English that aren’t errors. I actually tend to be a little hesitant when starting sentences with “And” or “But”. I feel incredibly guilty when I do it. It doesn’t stop me, but the guilt lingers and I often find myself rewording sentences so that they don’t start out that way. (It’s weird which grammar rules stick and which don’t)

I also don’t particularly like repeating words in a sentence either. Sometimes word repetition serves a purpose, sometimes. Most times it’s a sign of an inadequate vocabulary. The English language is vast, rich and complicated. It’s said that Eskimos have over seven words for snow (or nine, or over one hundred, depending on your urban legend). In English we only have one word for snow, but who knows how many ways to describe it. It’s rare for synonyms to actually mean exactly the same thing, there are almost always subtle variations in definition or context, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use one synonym in place of another.

What else? My tendency to write incomplete sentences. My Word docs are littered with sentences underlined in green. Sometimes I rewrite them, sometimes I don’t. As with one-word sentences, phrases or sentence fragments, can be effective when made to stand on their own. Using too many, however, is just plain lazy and sloppy, and can lead to great confusion. But (see what I did there) using a hanging sentence every once in a while won’t bring about the end of the world.

Lastly, I would like to mention the exclamatory sentence. I believe that I have touched upon the use of exclamation points in a previous post. I don’t like them. I feel like I’m being shouted at when I read one. I don’t like to be shouted at, who does? I do use them, but very very seldom. I have to want to be particularly emphatic before I even think of bringing one out of the writing arsenal. And then 9 times out of 10 I delete it. I absolutely never use more than one at a time. It’s a personal cardinal rule that I never break. How you use them is up to you, I beg only that when you do, please, for sanity’s sake, use a reasonable amount of discretion.

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