Believe it or not, grammar isn’t just for the Writing section of the SAT. Sentence style plays a part in reading comprehension. If you understand how writers construct sentences, and why they make the choices they do, you can improve your comprehension of said sentences. (Yep, I did it…”said sentences” is correct grammar)
Basic Sentence Structures
A simple sentence contains a single independent clause. However, it can also have numerous modifying phrases and/or relative clauses. Both of the sentences below are simple sentences. Short simple sentences are used to emphasize key ideas.
EXAMPLE: The books need to be shelved.
Towering precariously, leaning against the corner of the bedroom, the books need to be shelved on the new mahogany shelves installed in the den.
A compound sentence consists of at least 2 independent clauses joined by either a comma plus true conjunction (FANBOYS) or a semi-colon. Compound sentences are used to connect two ideas of equal importance.
EXAMPLE: My favorite book is Pride and Prejudice; I own 12 copies.
My favorite book is, unsurprisingly, Pride and Prejudice; I own, perhaps, 12 copies.
A complex sentence style is composed of a combination of independent and dependent clauses. A complex sentence prioritizes the information in the main clause as being more important than the information in the dependent clause.
EXAMPLE: While many people insist that Wuthering Heights is romantic, I think it is a horrible story about an abusive relationship.
While, I think it is a horrible story about an abusive relationship, many people insist that Wuthering Heights is romantic.
A compound-complex sentence consists of multiple independent clauses and at least one dependent clause. These are long and wordy and usually used to express a complicated set of ideas.
EXAMPLE: Andrew Carnegie knew the value of libraries, for he was an autodidact while he was an adolescent.
The librarians are a great source of information; when you are unsure of where to find what you are looking for, you should first start at the reference desk.
Emphasis (Good Sentence Style)
Writers make subtle stylistic choices to indicate what pieces of information are more important than others. Understanding these stylistic choices can help you in both reading and writing.
A short sentence in the midst of several medium or long sentences indicates the information in the short sentence should be the focus of your understanding of the paragraph.
EXAMPLE: The week had been long, filled with demands and pulls, many of which I had no control over, but I persevered. Each day seemed to last an eternity, and each night my mind raced with the pile of needs that had to be met the next day. Finally, Friday arrived, and I drove to the beach and sat on the sand, listening to the heartbeat of the lake. I slept.
Authors place the most important information in the independent clauses. If you find that you are lost in a sea of words, identify and read the independent clauses.
EXAMPLE: While it is often difficult to convince students, who look askance at anything “old” people enjoy, to watch documentaries, Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, produces some fascinating programs about English royalty, many of which are available on YouTube.
In English, information placed at the end of sentences, paragraphs, and even essays is expected to contain the most important information. Well written material will pay attention to this convention and place key details at the end of structures.
EXAMPLE: After reading hundreds of reviews, considering the opinions of strangers and friends alike, and changing his mind dozens of times, Frank finally bit the bullet and bought a new pencil.
Parallelism produces clearer prose by creating a repeated structure that is easier for the reader to follow.
EXAMPLE: Found within my bag are an e-reader so I always have something to read, a variety of pens and pencils because nobody ever seems to have a pen these days, two dollars and seventy-five cents in change just in case I need something to drink, Kleenex well of course—who doesn’t carry Kleenex–, and TTC tokens; I am still a good Girl Guide.
Ornate Sentence Style
The term “ornate” is my own rather than an official title for these types of structures. However, the term fits. These structures tend be overly fancy especially to an inexperienced reader. But if you are familiar with the possibility that sentences can be formed in these ways, they become much easier to handle.
A fronted sentence is formed when a prepositional phrase is moved to the front of the clause which causes the main verb and the subject to switch places.
Natural-Witty and intelligent ideas come out of the mouths of babes.
Fronted—Out of the mouths of babes come witty and intelligent ideas.
“Witty and intelligent ideas” remains the subject in both forms of the sentence, but if you are not aware of this possibility it is easy to become confused and start thinking that “babes” is the subject.
EXAMPLE: Very rarely in the oratory of public meetings is the part of verbiage and declamation so small…
Natural order: The part of verbiage and declamation is very rarely so small in the oratory of public meetings.
A cumulative or loose sentence starts with an independent clause and then is followed by a series of dependent clauses or phrases that add detail upon detail.
EXAMPLE: “I have been assured by a very knowing American friend of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nourished is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled; and I make no doubt it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.” Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal
A periodic sentence loads the modifiers at the front of the sentence and saves the main clause to the end.
EXAMPLE: “In the almost incredibly brief time which it took the small but sturdy porter to roll a milk-can across the platform and bump it, with a clang, against other milk-cans similarly treated a moment before, Ashe fell in love.”
(P.G. Wodehouse, Something Fresh, 1915)
A cleft sentence is a complex sentence (consisting of an independent and a dependent clause) but the same information could be expressed in a simple sentence. A cleft sentence is formed by using “empty structures”. This is easier to understand by looking at examples.
- It-cleft: It is Jaime for whom we are looking.
- Wh-cleft/Pseudo-cleft: What he wanted to buy was a Fiat.
- Reversed wh-cleft/Inverted pseudo-cleft: A Fiat is what he wanted to buy.
- All-cleft: All he wanted to buy was a Fiat.
- Inferential cleft: It is not that he loves her. It’s just that he has a way with her that is different.
- There-cleft: And then there’s a new house he wanted to build.
- If-because cleft: If he wants to be an actor it’s because he wants to be famous.
Left and Right Dislocation
Dislocation involves an external noun phrase at the left or right-hand end of the clause. Prosody or punctuation indicate that the noun phrase is not part of the clause proper. The purpose of the external noun phrase is to provide information about the identity of a pronoun that has been inserted into the clause in place of the full noun phrase.
My horse snores. ➞ My horse, he snores. (via LEFT DISLOCATION), or
My horse snores. ➞ He snores, my horse. (via RIGHT DISLOCATION)
In pseudo-clefts, this rule will produce related sentences like the following:
Anne’s brother left ➞ Anne’s brother is the one who left ➞ Anne’s brother, he’s the one who left.”
Resumptive modifiers appear to restart the sentence with a “that” clause. They are used for emphasis and should not be considered repetitive.
EXAMPLE: Few students truly understand the mechanics of the SAT test, a test that can determine their futures.
Summative Modifiers use a compression noun that sums up the concept of the first clause.
EXAMPLE: Most classes only teach students the basics, a problem that reduces scores when they attempt the real test.
Errors in Sentence Style
Using Commas to break up the Main Clause
- Don’t place a SINGLE comma between the subject and its verb
WRONG Jessie, with all the energy he could muster presented his proposal to the Board of Directors.
RIGHT Jessie, with all the energy he could muster, presented his proposal to the board of directors.
- Don’t place a SINGLE comma between the predicate and the object of that predicate.
WRONG Having spent weeks learning the technique, Lynda carefully cracked the eggs into the cold bowl, whipped them and folded carefully, the whipped cream into the mixture.
RIGHT Having spent weeks learning the technique, Lynda carefully cracked the eggs into the cold bowl, whipped them and folded carefully the whipped cream into the mixture.
RULE #1 Place modifiers as close as possible to the thing they are modifying
RULE #2 Opening modifiers must modify the head noun that follows
RULE#3 Closing modifiers can easily be ambiguous (you don’t want this)
Make sure the sentence’s emphasis is focusing on the most important idea.
WEAK EMPHASIS Dazzled by the beauty of the Spanish Steps, I wandered around while my wallet was stolen, but I went back to the hotel after the sun set.
The sun setting is nice, but probably not as important as a stolen wallet.
BETTER EMPHASIS Dazzled by the beauty of the Spanish Steps, I wandered until the sun set when I discovered that my wallet had been stolen.
Lack of Concision
Wordiness occurs in weak writing in a number of common ways.
- Is where/Is when
- Overuse of adverbs with weak verbs
- Stretchers (to be, there is/are, it is/are, use)
- Passive Voice
Sentence style is tricky because context is king, influencing everything else. However, understanding what tends to be considered better sentence style, can elevate your reading comprehension and writing fluency.
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