Have you ever ordered a dish in a restaurant and been not happy with its taste even though it contained most of your favorite ingredients? Just as a meal might lack the finishing touches needed to spice it up, so too might a paragraph contain all the basic components but still lack the stylistic finesse required to engage a reader. Sometimes writers have a tendency to reuse the same sentence pattern throughout their writing. Like any repetitive task, reading text that contains too many sentences with the same length and structure can become monotonous and boring. Experienced writers mix it up by using an assortment of sentence patterns, rhythms, and lengths.
In this chapter, you will follow a student named Noemi who has written a draft of an essay but needs to refine her writing. This section discusses how to introduce sentence variety into writing, how to open sentences using a variety of techniques, and how to use different types of sentence structure when connecting ideas. You can use these techniques when revising a paper to bring life and rhythm to your work. They will also make reading your work more enjoyable.
Sentence Variety Lesson. Provided by: VirtualTeacherGirl. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.
Incorporating Sentence Variety
Experienced writers incorporate sentence variety into their writing by varying sentence style and structure. Using a mixture of different sentence structures reduces repetition and adds emphasis to important points in the text. Read the following example:
During my time in office, I have achieved several goals. I have helped increase funding for local schools. I have reduced crime rates in the neighborhood. I have encouraged young people to get involved in their community. My competitor argues that she is the better choice in the upcoming election. I argue that it is ridiculous to fix something that isn’t broken. If you reelect me this year, I promise to continue to serve this community.
In this extract from an election campaign, the writer uses short, simple sentences of a similar length and style. Writers often mistakenly believe that this technique makes the text clearer for the reader, but the result is a choppy, unsophisticated paragraph that does not grab the audience’s attention. Now read the revised paragraph with sentence variety:
During my time in office, I have helped increase funding for local schools, reduced crime rates in the neighborhood, and encouraged young people to get involved in their community. Why fix what isn’t broken? If you reelect me this year, I will continue to achieve great things for this community. Don’t take a chance on an unknown contender; vote for the proven success.
Notice how introducing a short rhetorical question among the longer sentences in the paragraph is an effective means of keeping the reader’s attention. In the revised version, the writer combines the choppy sentences at the beginning into one longer sentence, which adds rhythm and interest to the paragraph.
Effective writers often implement the "rule of three," which is basically the idea that things that contain three elements are more memorable and more satisfying to readers than any other number. Try to use a series of three when providing examples, grouping adjectives, or generating a list.
Combine each set of simple sentences into a compound or a complex sentence. Write the combined sentence on your own sheet of paper.
1. Shakespeare's writing is still relevant today. He wrote about timeless themes. These themes include love, hate, jealousy, death, and destiny.
2. Prewriting is a vital stage of the writing process. Prewriting helps you organize your ideas. Types of of prewriting include outlining, brainstorming, and idea mapping.
3. Walking out in nature can be a very relaxing activity. By nature, I mean the ocean, the woods, mountains, or even a neighborhood with a lot of trees.
4. Reading is like travelling in the mind. A reader can feel like they've gone to Turkey, Nepal, and Belize all in one evening.
5. Vaping can be a dangerous habit, especially if vaping THC. Vitamin E oil is sometimes added to vaping cartriges. Hundres of young people have had permanent lung damage from vaping THC.
Please share with a classmate and compare your answers. Remember, there are many ways to combine sentences, but if you have questions, ask them in class.
Writing at Work
At some point in your career, you will probably find you need to write a cover letter or statement of interest for a job. Writers of cover letters usually find that their initial draft has too much "I" in it, and it sounds a little self-centered, perhaps. While you must use "I" in a cover letter/statement of interest because it is about you, varying your sentence structure will allow you to say a lot about yourself without sounding like you are overusing "I."
Using Sentence Variety at the Beginning of Sentences
Read the following sentences and consider what they all have in common:
- John and Amanda will be analyzing this week’s financial report.
- The car screeched to a halt just a few inches away from the young boy.
- Students rarely come to the exam adequately prepared.
If you are having trouble figuring out why these sentences are similar, try underlining the subject in each. You will notice that the subject is positioned at the beginning of each sentence—John and Amanda, the car, students. Since the subject-verb-object pattern is the simplest sentence structure, many writers tend to overuse this technique, which can result in repetitive paragraphs with little sentence variety.
Noemi wrote an essay about the 2008 government bailout. Read this excerpt from Noemi’s essay:
Starting a Sentence with an Adverb
One technique you can use so as to avoid beginning a sentence with the subject is to use an adverb. An adverb is a word that describes a verb, adjective, or other adverb and often ends in –ly. Examples of adverbs include quickly, softly, quietly, angrily, and timidly. Notice the difference between the following sentences:
- She slowly turned the corner and peered into the murky basement.
- Slowly, she turned the corner and peered into the murky basement.
In the second sentence, the adverb slowly is placed at the beginning of the sentence. If you read the two sentences aloud, you will notice that moving the adverb changes the rhythm of the sentence and slightly alters its meaning. The second sentence emphasizes how the subject moves—slowly—creating a buildup of tension. This technique is effective for fiction writing.
Note that an adverb used at the beginning of a sentence is usually followed by a comma. A comma indicates that the reader should pause briefly, which creates a useful dramatic effect. Read the following sentences aloud and consider the effect of pausing after the adverb:
- Cautiously, he unlocked the kennel and waited for the dog’s reaction.
- Solemnly, the policeman approached the mayor and placed him under arrest.
- Suddenly, he slammed the door shut and sprinted across the street.
In an academic essay, moving an adverb to the beginning of a sentence serves to vary the rhythm of a paragraph and increase sentence variety.
On your own sheet of paper, rewrite the following sentences by moving the adverbs to the beginning.
1. The red truck sped furiously past the camper van, blaring its horn.
2. Jeff snatched at the bread hungrily, polishing off three slices in under a minute.
3. The firefighters bravely tackled the blaze, but they were beaten back by flames.
4. Mayor Danielson privately acknowledged that the budget was excessive and that further discussion was needed.
5. The dancer lithely glided across the stage before she began the pas-de-deux.
Starting a Sentence with a Prepositional Phrase
A prepositional phrase is a group of words that behaves as an adjective or an adverb, modifying a noun or a verb. Prepositional phrases contain a preposition (a word that specifies place, direction, or time) and an object of the preposition (a noun phrase or pronoun that follows the preposition).
Read the following sentence:
- The child opened his birthday present with excitement.
In this sentence, the prepositional phrase is underneath the table. The preposition underneath relates to the object that follows the preposition—the table. Adjectives may be placed between the preposition and the object in a prepositional phrase.
- The child opened his birthday present with extreme excitement.
Some prepositional phrases can be moved to the beginning of a sentence in order to create variety in a piece of writing. Look at the following revised sentence:
- With excitement, the child opened his birthday present.
Notice that when the prepositional phrase is moved to the beginning of the sentence, the emphasis shifts from the subject—the child—to the manner in which the child is opening the present. Words that are placed at the beginning or end of a sentence generally receive the greatest emphasis. Take a look at the following examples. The prepositional phrase is bold in each:
- The bandaged man waited in the doctor’s office.
- In the doctor’s office, the bandaged man waited.
- My train leaves the station at 6:45 a.m.
- At 6:45 a.m., my train leaves the station.
- The teenagers exchanged drugs and money under the railway bridge.
- Under the railway bridge, the teenagers exchanged drugs and money.
Prepositional phrases are useful in any type of writing. Take another look at Noemi’s essay on the government bailout.
The underlined words are all prepositional phrases. Notice how they add additional information to the text and provide a sense of flow to the essay, making it less choppy and more pleasurable to read.
Unmovable Prepositional Phrases
Not all prepositional phrases can be placed at the beginning of a sentence. Read the following sentence:
- I would like a chocolate sundae without whipped cream.
In this sentence, without whipped cream is the prepositional phrase. Because it describes the chocolate sundae, it cannot be moved to the beginning of the sentence. “Without whipped cream I would like a chocolate sundae” does not make as much (if any) sense. It dangles because it is not right next to what it describes. Just like a verbal phrase or any modifying phrase, a prepositional phrase needs to be placed right next to what it describes. To determine whether a prepositional phrase can be moved, we must determine the meaning of the sentence.
Overuse of Prepositional Phrases
Experienced writers often include more than one prepositional phrase in a sentence; however, it is important not to overload your writing. Using too many modifiers in a paragraph may create an unintentionally comical effect as the following example shows:
The treasure lay buried under the old oak tree, behind the crumbling fifteenth-century wall, near the schoolyard, where children played merrily during their lunch hour, unaware of the riches that remained hidden beneath their feet.
A sentence is not necessarily effective just because it is long and complex. If your sentence appears cluttered with prepositional phrases, divide it into two shorter sentences. The previous sentence is far more effective when written as two simpler sentences:
The treasure lay buried under the old oak tree, behind the crumbling fifteenth-century wall. In the nearby schoolyard, children played merrily during their lunch hour, unaware of the riches that remained hidden beneath their feet.
In addition, writers can sometimes transform prepositional phrases into adjectives when the prepositional phrase originally described a noun.
Sentence with too many prepositional phrases (in bold): Oftentimes, the governor revises the California budget in May when the revenue numbers from taxes are in, but that only leaves two months until the end of the fiscal year to change spending.
Sentence with some prepositional phrases (in bold) turned into adjectives (in blue): Oftentimes, the governor revises the California budget in May when the tax revenue numbers are in, but that only leaves the the final two months of the fiscal year to change spending.
On a separate piece of paper, move prepositional phrases around in the following paragraph to add variety or add some to appropriate places in the text.
Suburban economic development largely depends on three factors: proximity to a major economic center, transportation access, and the education level of the local workforce. The most successful suburban economic centers are located at the crossroads of two major interstates and have public and private transportation options available. It may be in the best interest of suburban areas within 30 miles of an urban area and looking to expand economically to invest in public transportation (light rail and/or bus) despite their need for subsidies. Economic analysis may show that a combination of local, state, and federal subsidies will make such investment feasible given the amount of projected growth. Even if the full amount of growth does not materialize, the greater ease with which local residents can commute to urban centers may allow for population growth and more moderate economic expansion of the suburban area and allow it to develop into a smaller hub with its own sphere of influence.
Compare what you did with a classmate.
Writing at Work
The overuse of prepositional phrases often occurs when our thoughts are jumbled and we are unsure how concepts or ideas relate to one another. If you are preparing a report or a proposal, take the time to organize your thoughts in an outline before writing a rough draft. Read the draft aloud, either to yourself or to a colleague, and identify areas that are rambling or unclear. If you notice that a particular part of your report contains several sentences over twenty words (or the equivalent of two lines), you should double check that particular section to make certain that it is coherent and does not contain unnecessary prepositional phrases. Reading aloud sometimes helps detect unclear and wordy sentences. You can also ask a colleague to paraphrase your main points to ensure that the meaning is clear.
Starting a Sentence by Inverting Subject and Verb
As we noted earlier, most writers follow the subject-verb-object sentence structure. In an inverted sentence, the order is reversed so that the subject follows the verb. Read the following sentence pairs:
- A truck was parked in the driveway.
- Parked in the driveway was a truck.
- A copy of the file is attached.
- Attached is a copy of the file.
Notice how the second sentence in each pair places more emphasis on the subject—a truck in the first example and the file in the second. This technique is useful for drawing the reader’s attention to your primary area of focus. We can apply this method to an academic essay. Take another look at Naoei’s paragraph.
On your own sheet of paper, rewrite the following sentences as inverted sentences.
1. Teresa will never attempt to run another marathon.
2. A detailed job description is enclosed with this letter.
3. Bathroom facilities are across the hall to the left of the water cooler.
4. The well-dressed stranger stumbled through the doorway.
5. My colleagues remain unconvinced about the proposed merger.
Connecting Ideas to Increase Sentence Variety
Reviewing and rewriting the beginning of sentences is a good way of introducing sentence variety into your writing. Another useful technique is to connect two sentences using a modifier, a relative clause, or an appositive. This section examines how to connect ideas across several sentences in order to increase sentence variety and improve writing.
Joining Ideas Using an –ing Modifier
Sometimes it is possible to combine two sentences by converting one of them into a modifier using the –ing verb form—singing, dancing, swimming. A modifier is a word or phrase that qualifies the meaning of another element in the sentence (see "Modifiers" section of this chapter). Read the following example:
Original sentences: Steve checked the computer system. He discovered a virus.
Revised sentence: Checking the computer system, Steve discovered a virus.
To connect two sentences using an –ing modifier, add –ing to one of the verbs in the sentences (checking) and delete the one of the subjects (He). Use a comma to separate the modifier from the subject of the sentence. It is important to make sure that the main idea in your revised sentence is contained in the main clause, not in the modifier. In this example, the main idea is that Steve discovered a virus, not that he checked the computer system.
In the following example, an –ing modifier indicates that two actions are occurring at the same time:
- Noticing the police car, she shifted gears and slowed down.
This means that she slowed down at the same time she noticed the police car.
- Barking loudly, the dog ran across the driveway.
This means that the dog barked as it ran across the driveway.
You can add an –ing modifier to the beginning or the end of a sentence, depending on which fits best.
Beginning: Conducting a survey among her friends, Amanda found that few were happy in their jobs.
End: Maria filed the final report, meeting her deadline.
A common mistake when combining sentences using the –ing verb form is to misplace the modifier so that it is not logically connected to the rest of the sentence. This creates a dangling modifier. For more about how to avoid this, see the "Modifiers" page earlier in this chapter.
Joining Ideas Using an –ed Modifier
Some sentences can be combined using an –ed verb form—stopped, finished, played. To use this method, one of the sentences must contain a form of be as a helping verb in addition to the –ed verb form. Take a look at the following example:
- Original sentences: The Jones family was delayed by a traffic jam. They arrived several hours after the party started.
- Revised sentence: Delayed by a traffic jam, the Jones family arrived several hours after the party started.
In the original version, was acts as a helping verb—it has no meaning by itself, but it serves a grammatical function by placing the main verb (delayed) in the perfect tense.
To connect two sentences using an –ed modifier, drop the helping verb (was) and the subject (the Jones family) from the sentence with an –ed verb form. This forms a modifying phrase (delayed by a traffic jam) that can be added to the beginning or end of the other sentence according to which fits best. As with the –ing modifier, be careful to place the word that the phrase modifies immediately next to what it modifies in order to avoid a dangling modifier.
Using –ing or –ed modifiers can help streamline your writing by drawing obvious connections between two sentences. Take a look at how Noemi might use modifiers in her paragraph.
Combine the following sentences so that you have a core clause and a modifying phrase beginning with -ed.
1. Xiana was floored by winning the grand prize. She didn't know what to say.
2. Danielle was sad that her cat passed away. She consoled herself remembering the time that he had ruined her computer.
3. They were shocked at the comedian's punch line. They didn't think it was funny at all.
4. He had mellowed out after the argument. He realized that going to the beach relaxed him.
5. The football was fumbled at the goal line. The football squirted around between players on the opposing teams.
Joining Ideas Using a Relative Clause
Another technique that writers use to combine sentences is to join them using a relative clause. A relative clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb and describes a noun. Relative clauses function as adjectives by answering questions such as which one? or what kind? Relative clauses begin with a relative pronoun, such as who, which, where, why, or when. Read the following examples:
- Original sentences: The managing director is visiting the company next week. He lives in Seattle.
- Revised sentence: The managing director, who lives in Seattle, is visiting the company next week.
To connect two sentences using a relative clause, substitute the subject of one of the sentences (he) for a relative pronoun (who). This gives you a relative clause (who lives in Seattle) that can be placed next to the noun it describes (the managing director). Make sure to keep the sentence you want to emphasize as the main clause. For example, reversing the main clause and subordinate clause in the preceding sentence emphasizes where the managing director lives, not the fact that he is visiting the company.
- Revised sentence: The managing director, who is visiting the company next week, lives in Seattle.
Relative clauses are a useful way of providing additional, nonessential information in a sentence. Take a look at how Noemi might incorporate relative clauses into her essay.
To check the punctuation of relative clauses, assess whether or not the clause can be taken out of the sentence without changing its meaning. If the relative clause is not essential to the meaning of the sentence, it should be placed in commas. If the relative clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence, it does not require commas around it.
Join the following sentences by creating relative clauses.
1. Uncle Bob is a sailor. He has been everywhere.
2. Aunt Edna paints portraits. You met her last year.
3. My new car broke down on the bridge. The car cost a bundle.
4. Save the seat for me. The seat is closest to the front.
5. We had a lovely hotel in Ixtapa. We honeymooned there.
6. Joe's cat was mistaken for a rat. Its tail is hairless.
Joining Ideas Using an Appositive
A noun phrase appositive is a word or group of words that describes or renames a noun or pronoun. Incorporating appositives into your writing is a useful way of combining sentences that are too short and choppy. Take a look at the following example:
- Original sentences: Greta Thunberg is a 16-year-old environmental activist. She is from Sweden.
- Revised sentence: Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old environmental activist, is from Sweden.
In the revised sentence, “a 16-year-old environmental activist" is an appositive because it renames Greta Thunberg. To combine two sentences using an appositive, drop the subject and verb from the sentence that renames the noun and turn it into a phrase. Note that in the previous example, the appositive is positioned immediately after the noun it describes. An appositive may be placed anywhere in a sentence, but it must come directly before or after the noun to which it refers:
- Appositive after noun: No one expected that Scott, a poorly trained athlete, would win the race.
- Appositive before noun: A poorly trained athlete, Scott was not expected to win the race.
Unlike relative clauses, appositives are always punctuated by a comma or a set of commas. Take a look at the way Noemi uses appositives to include additional facts in her essay.
On your own sheet of paper, rewrite the following sentence pairs as one sentence using the techniques you have learned in this section.
- Baby sharks are called pups. Pups can be born in one of three ways.
- The Pacific Ocean is the world’s largest ocean. It extends from the Arctic in the north to the Southern Ocean in the south.
- Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics. He is a champion swimmer.
- Ashley introduced her colleague Dan to her husband, Jim. She speculated that the two of them would have a lot in common.
- Cacao is harvested by hand. It is then sold to chocolate-processing companies at the Coffee, Sugar, and Cocoa Exchange.
Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.
Children’s stories are deliberately written in short, simple sentences to avoid confusion. Most sentences are constructed using the standard subject-verb-object format. Choose a children’s story that is suitable for eight- to ten-year-olds. Rewrite a chapter of the story so that it appeals to a slightly older age group, by editing for sentence variety. Experiment with the techniques you learned on this page, including the three different ways to vary sentence structure at the beginning of a sentence and the three different ways to connect ideas between sentences. Compare the revised chapter with the original version and consider how sentence variety can be used to target a particular audience.
Writing at Work
In addition to varying sentence structure, consider varying the types of sentences you are using in a report or other workplace document. Most sentences are declarative, but a carefully placed question, exclamation, or command can pique colleagues’ interest, even if the subject material is fairly dry. Imagine that you are writing a budget analysis. Beginning your report with a rhetorical question, such as “Where is our money going?” or “How can we increase sales?” encourages people to continue reading to find out the answers. Although they should be used sparingly in academic and professional writing, questions or commands are effective rhetorical devices.