Thursday, 9 February 2017

Sentence Structure For Dummies

What is Sentence Structure?

Remember those wooden alphabet blocks we all had as tiny children? One didn't make words out of them, of course. One built forts, threw them at one's brother, chewed the corners. But you could have made words. If you hadn't been so frivolous

Now, imagine that instead of letters, those blocks had had words. Actually, you can buy blocks like that - you can get them here. Although it's only a set of eight, so the applications are fairly limited. Nevertheless, if you have a look at that link, you'll see illustrated in charming little wooden toys what sentence structure actually is. It's called structure because you build your sentence, from the bricks that are your words. And, just as when you build a wall, if you don't use the right materials and put them together properly, it will fall down, so with a sentence you must follow the rules of construction.

Why It Matters

At its most basic, the vital importance of sentence structure is that it affects meaning. 

Consider this example:

Joe hit Tom.

This is as simple as a sentence can be. Subject, verb, object. The meaning is clear and unequivocal. But look at what happens when you reorder the words.

Tom hit Joe.

Now, that's still a well-formed sentence, but when the meaning to be conveyed is that Joe hit Tom, it's a dismal failure, not only failing to convey the meaning the writer intended, but also conveying a completely spurious meaning. An Alternative Meaning, if you like. Word order really matters in English.

So, the fundamental requirement of sentence structure is that it not obscure, reverse or otherwise screw around with meaning. No surprise there; it's the heart of language, after all, the ability to convey meaning with symbols.

However, just as we expect more of a wall than that it stay up, so we expect more of a sentence than the mere transfer of information. A well-written sentence is a delight to the eye and to the mind. A poorly constructed sentence invites ridicule and loathing.

The Common Pitfalls

Assuming you know what you want to say, and who hits whom, and so forth, there are some common nastinesses that you will want to avoid. These bad habits are often the difference between a really nice piece of writing and something that makes your reader cringe and throw away the book. 

Sentence Fragments

In English, a sentence must have a subject and a verb, at the very least. If the verb is transitive, there must also be an object, but in no case may the verb be omitted. 

As a style choice, sentence fragments may occasionally be used in point-of-view narrative, and they really come into their own in dialogue, because typical English speakers use a lot of them, and if you don't, your dialogue will sound stilted and unnatural. 

In more casual forms of writing, too, such as emails to a friend, or this blog, you may relax the strict rules; these less formal things partake of some of the nature of dialogue, however care must be exercised. In order to make this kind of decision, you really need to start from a basis of knowing what is correct. 

Repetitive, Monotonous Structures.

Look at this example of what can happen if you don’t vary your sentence structures appropriately:

Rover was on the hill. The hill was covered with grass. The weather was cold and wet. The wind was chilly. Rover was hungry.

Seriously, people, it would be better to shoot yourself RIGHT NOW than to write something like that. Consider, on the other hand:

Cold and hungry, Rover shivered in the damp wind; the grassy hill afforded little shelter from the weather.

Strings of Modifiers

Some novice writers imagine that no noun is adequately presented without a string of adjectives. Of course you want your reader to see your characters and situation in vivid detail. Of course you do, and it's your job as a writer to make that happen, but hanging long, trailing strings of adjectives from every noun like Christmas lights is not the way to do it.

Consider this example:

Boris, our black, half-persian, overweight cat, sat on the intricately-woven Persian mat which my father had brought back from his diplomatic tour in the Middle East.

Seriously, you'd think this person was getting paid double for every adjective, with a triple score for the modifying clause. Writing isn't Scrabble, people! You've got a lot of information about the cat and the mat there, and the writer may have intended to set the scene and give the reader some backstory. But there are ways and ways to do this.

Now look at this example:

Boris had been on the rug again; the intricate patterns were blurred with drifts of black fur. Don't get a Persian, Mum had said. They're too much work with all that fur. But I'd fallen in love with his little black face in the petshop window. I'd better get the  fur up before Dad got home; he'd go spare. That rug was his big treasure, a souvenir from his time in the Saudi Arabian embassy, and Boris wasn't supposed to be in his study at all.

Do you see this? We've got in all the information about Boris that we had in the first paragraph, and we've even added more, for now we know his breed. We've shown a bit about how the family members relate to each other, and we've given all the information about the mat as well, including a bit more about Dad's job. The paragraph is substantially longer - six sentences and 86 words, compared to a single sentence of 26 words - but now you can read it without wanting to claw your eyes out. 

Conjunction Abuse

I spoke about this issue last month, but it bears repetition, because this is one of the most common errors I see in independent fiction.

As we saw above, an inappropriately structured sentence can completely fail to convey the intended meaning, as in this example:

Rover ate his bone when the big Doberman appeared and took it away from him.

The inappropriate use of simple, instead of continuous, past tense in the first phrase reverses the order of events and renders the sentence quite meaningless, causing it to say that Rover ate his bone as a result of having it taken away from him, which is a nonsense. This kind of error arises from a failure to understand the demands on a sentence that are made by the use of “when” as a conjunction. For more detail on this, see 'Pitfalls in Sentence Construction - the Toxic When', in this blog on 30 January, 2017.

Dependent Clause Incorrectly Attached

Another kind of problem occurs when you fail to be aware of the different components of your sentence. For instance, in this example, the writer failed correctly to identify the subject of a clause:

Rover knew it was useless to fight the rats; they would be hopeless.

In this sentence, the referent of “would be hopeless” is “to fight the rats”, but the mistaken use of the plural pronoun associates it to the rats, rendering the clause meaningless.

Dangling Modifiers

A dangling modifier occurs when a modifying word or phrase has as its subject something other than the thing it is intended to modify. I discussed this in greater detail in my post, 'Dangling Modifiers', on 27 January 2017, so I shan't go into great detail here.

EG:         Being so hungry, the dead rat was very appealing to Rover.

Few things make a writer look more careless and incompetent than a dangling modifier, and yet they are among the easiest mistake to make when one is writing at speed. My own first drafts are often sprinkled with them. Yet another reason not to let anyone see your first draft, if you needed one.

The wrong punctuation can completely alter the sense of a sentence, and even if the sense is not lost, poor punctuation can reduce it to a slag-heap of quivering slok. Therefore, you need to know the different forms of punctuation and how to use them.

Incorrect punctuation can result in this:

It was raining Rover wanted to find a dry place to curl up and sleep but there was no shelter as far as he could see he thought about digging a hole but in the end he just sat miserably watching the drops trickle off the ends of his whiskers how he wished he had not vomited on the carpet that fateful day.

or this:

It was raining, Rover wanted to find, a dry, place to curl, up and sleep but there was no, shelter as far as he could see he thought about digging, a hole but in the end: he just sat miserably watching the drops trickle off, the ends of his, whiskers how he wished, he had not vomited! On the carpet that fateful day.

instead of this:

It was raining; Rover wanted to find a dry place to curl up and sleep, but there was no shelter as far as he could see. He thought about digging a hole, but in the end he just sat, miserably watching the drops trickle off the ends of his whiskers. How he wished he had not vomited on the carpet, that fateful day!


This is not, nor is it intended to be, an exhaustive exposition of sentence structure. There is not space in a blog post to cover all the intricacies of this strangely neglected topic, nor am I sufficiently expert to do so. However, if I have alerted you to the main pitfalls, I think that's sufficient. Once you are aware of the issues, you will develop your own skills.

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