Sometimes it can be helpful to examine the way sentences are used in a text. Ask the question, what is making the sentences work? Let’s consider a few ideas.
Begin by considering the sentence length. Is the text comprised of mostly short sentences, mostly long (or really long) sentences, or a mixture of both?
Short sentences are a perfectly fine addition to any essay work. But if overused, they can feel boring and monotonous.
I needed to be at work early. I set my alarm for 5:00 am. It went off on time, and I got up. I showered and dressed. I ate cereal for breakfast. I had orange juice, too. My drive to work went well. I only hit three lights. Traffic wasn’t bad. I found a good parking place at work. I walked into the office early.
Try reading these examples aloud. This will help you “hear” their flow in a way you cannot by simply reading silently with eyes alone. Reading aloud is really the only way to hear the sound of writing.
In the above example, every one of those sentences is correct and perfectly legal in terms of grammar and structure. But how does it sound? A little choppy? Repetitive? Flat?
Now let’s look at the same paragraph, adjusted to combine the short sentences into much longer ones—and again, read it aloud:
I needed to be at work early, so I set my alarm for 5:00 am. It went off on time, and I got up, showered, dressed, ate cereal for breakfast, and had orange juice, too. My drive to work went well because I only hit three lights, traffic wasn’t bad, I found a good parking place at work, and I walked into the office early.
Once again, each of the sentences in the above example is grammatically correct. But how does the sample sound now? It seems to go on and on for a bit, doesn’t it? Longer sentences—especially once after another—can be a little hard to follow.
Let’s see if we can find a happy medium, creating a paragraph that includes both long and short sentences (yes, read it aloud again, please):
I needed to be at work early, so I set my alarm for 5:00 am. It went off on time. I got up, showered, dressed, and had cereal and orange juice for breakfast. My drive to work went well. I only hit three lights, and traffic wasn’t bad. I found a good parking place at work and walked into the office early.
You’ll probably agree that the final sample has the best, most fluid sound. Why? When we humans speak, we tend to speak in a mixture of long sentences, short sentences, and incomplete sentences—not to mention single words and short phrases. Thus, when we use varying sentence lengths in our writing, it sounds more conversational to our ear. Reading text composed of mixed-length sentences is both easier to do and easier to understand.
That said, sentence length can be used to create specific effects, too. Long, complicated sentences are often used in description or to create a rhythmic, flowing feel. In contrast, short sentences may be used for emphasis or to ramp up a feeling of anxiety or suspense.
Check Your Understanding: Sentence Length
Consider this long sentence from the children’s book, Stuart Little, by E.B. White:
In the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elm trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were bushy and worth finding out about, where the streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge, where the lawns ended in orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky, in this loveliest of all towns Stuart stopped to get a drink of sarsaparilla.
- The above passage is a single, long, complex sentence and is grammatically correct. How did you feel when you read it? What kind of mood or tone did it create? Could you imagine the place being described?
- Now, consider this excerpt from a piece by Ben Montgomery, written as he covered a state football championship:
“Complete pass. Again. Clock’s ticking. Again. Down the field they go. The kid can’t miss. The Panthers are nearing the end zone….The whole place is on its feet. Ball’s on the 5-yard line. Marve takes the snap. Drops back. Throws.”
- Montgomery’s piece is built of short sentences, sentence fragments, and even single words. How did you feel when you read this? What kind of mood or tone did it create? Can you hear the difference from the Stuart Little passage?
- What have you discovered about the effect of sentence length?
- Try your hand at playing with sentence length. Imagine the most beautiful place you’ve ever been. Write a few lines that describe the place. Aim for writing long, flowing sentences that include lots of sensory description: sight, sound, texture, etc. Now imagine something you’ve done that made you anxious or frightened. Write a few sentences that recreate the scene and sensations. Use short, abrupt sentences to ramp up the tension.
See the Appendix, Results for the “Check Your Understanding” Activities, for answers.