October 13, 2019

The Power of a Good Sentence

“ENGLISH WAS MY worst subject (next to Health) in high school right through to my second year of university, when I stopped taking it. I’d fallen afoul of the empty-rule syndrome. Don’t use the pronoun I in an essay; don’t begin sentences with but or because; write paragraphs in the topic sentence, body text, conclusion pattern (even if it bores you to death to say the same thing three times); vary sentence structure. The trouble with these rules is that no one told me why any of them would be especially useful.

“Vary sentence structure” was a rule I puzzled over for years. No one explained grammar and syntax to me well enough for me to be able to make useful connections. At first, I thought, Well, I can write long and short sentences, something like Hemingway. Then I practiced emphatic placement of important material (at the beginning or the end of the sentence, I was told) and inversion (writing the sentence backwards). None of this got me anywhere, because I could not join the spirit of a sentence—what emotional and factual impact I intended—with the idea of sentence structure.

I puzzled through instruction books. I discovered the wonderful distinctions between simple, compound, and complex sentences and the even more mysterious cumulative and periodic sentences. I practised writing periodic sentences until I was blue in the face without actually being able to discover how that made them interesting for readers. They weren’t very interesting to me. And my stories did not seem any better for having good topic sentence paragraphs, long and short sentences, and a scattering of lovely periodic sentences.”

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