In linguistic terms, English is an isolating language. That means word order matters, unlike say Latin, which is a highly synthetic language. In Latin, the function of a word can be deduced from its form. So a writer like Virgil could place the same words in any order, and the reader would still arrive at the correct meaning.
In Latin, canis virum mordet means dog bites man. So does mordet virum canis.* Whereas in English dog bites man and man bites dog carry two very different meanings.
For this reason, sentences in the English language have a pretty standard pattern, and deviations from that pattern can cause confusion. English language sentences are typically subject-verb-object. Inexperienced, developing, or tentative writers use this pattern ad infinitum, to the point where the writing has no flow, like this:
Small sentences are boring to read. Many of them strung together look bad. They appear simple. Your thoughts look simple, too. It’s like you can’t sustain an idea for more than a few words. You can think in only trivial, simplistic ways. Small thoughts seem to come from small minds. You will leave your reader with the impression of simplemindedness. Is that what you want?
Despite the challenges posed by English, there are a few ways even novice writers can vary their prose without risking clarity. Here are some fun things you can do with sentences.
1) Add an introductory phrase:
Clad in white pants and a pink shirt, Lori Anne Madison wiped her hands and walked briskly to the microphone Wednesday at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor.
“Spelling bee loses young sensation Lori Anne Madison in second round.” Jeremy Borden. The Washington Post. 30 May 2012. Online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/spelling-bee-loses-young-sensation-lori-anne-madison-in-second-round/2012/05/30/gJQAyuSq2U_story.html.
This sentence is packed with information, as most good journalism is. Who, what, where, when. But it’s that introductory phrase that gives us the visual we need to be hooked.
2) Use transitions. Transitions are the grease that allows the wheels of language to turn smoothly. And they don’t need to be complicated or pretty to work well.
These do-as-you-please linguists imagine themselves to be fighting for the common man, but they don’t practice what they preach.
“Inescapably you’re judged by your language.” Ryan Bloom. The New Yorker. 29 May 2012. Online. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/05/language-wars-descriptivists.html
See that tiny little “but”? Transition! And with it, the sentence avoided the tyranny of s-v-o to become s-v-o2. (Dammit Jim, I’m a linguist, not a mathematician!)
I could go on all day about transitions. In fact, I have! I’ve got a chart, and an audio, and a transcript. And you’re welcome to it.
3) Invert the subject and verb.
Although the Second World War marked a turning away from inorganic chemicals as pesticides into the wonder world of the carbon molecule, a few of the old materials persist. Chief among these is arsenic, which is still the basic ingredient in a variety of weed and insect killers.
Subject = arsenic. Verb = is. In normal order, the sentence would read, Arsenic is chief among these. By switching the sentence around, Carson puts arsenic next to her relative pronoun which, allowing her to extend the line of the sentence.
This is a poetic device that your reader will tolerate rarely. Use it sparingly. (Or Yoda risk sounding like.)
4) Order your subject all about. English has four sentence types: declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamatory. We can all agree that the excitement conveyed by the last probably isn’t appropriate for most business communications. And rhetorical questions should be used sparingly, especially when we’re trying to be clear. But that doesn’t mean we have to write in the declarative all the time. Take this sentence for example.
See how that works? I just gave you a direct order. It breaks up the flow of the paragraph, jars your reader out of the complacency of absorbing information, and invites him or her to participate in the text. Try it sometime.
With these four tips, writers can vary the rhythm of their prose and avoid the choppiness that often accompanies the subject-verb-object pattern of English sentence structure. But be sure to keep them in their proper place. The needs of your reader should always take first priority, and a beautiful, lyrical piece of prose won’t accomplish its object if readers are left confused by its meaning. Let grace be the ornament of clarity, and not vice versa.
Remember, we’re meeting this afternoon on Twitter for #WrMatters, a Tweet Chat for professionals who write. We’d love to have you join us, because we understand that your writing matters. Hope to see you at 4 pm ET to talk about the short messages we write every day.
* Example from Norton Anthology of World Literature, Vol. A. Eds. Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack. “Virgil.” 1053. NY: WW Norton & Company, 2002.