It’s true that we can communicate through grunts, gestures, and a mere word here and there — but it’s the sentence that’s the basic unit of communication. Not the word. Not the paragraph. Not the chapter. Occasionally readers will marvel over a writer’s word choices. Rarely will readers think, “What a magnificent paragraph!” They will, however, be struck by the power, grace, beauty, or wit of individual sentences.
If you want to write well — to have readers enjoy the content and cadence of what you’re saying — you must write good sentences. And to write good sentences, you must be in charge of where the sentence is going.
In How to Write a Sentence Stanley Fish cautions writers to “make sure that every component of your sentences is related to the other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous (unless ambiguity is what you are aiming at).”
The sentence is a train, with clauses, phrases, adjectives, and adverbs all coupled in a logical order. But if the order is wrong — if any of the parts are hooked on incorrectly, swing wide, or come undone — that wrong order can and will pull the train off the track. You will have not a sentence, but a grammatical wreck.
In order to teach yourself to control all the components of a long sentence, Fish asks you to write three-word sentences — lots of them. (Articles don’t count as words at this point.)
Then, after you’ve written 20 or so such sentences, he asks you to expand each into a 15-word sentence: articles count as words at this point. Be sure that you remember the doer and action from the 3-word sentence, be sure that they remain the doer and action, and be sure you can tell how your additional words relate to the doer and action.
After you’re sure that your 15-word sentences are clear and unambiguous . . . expand them to 30 words.
Finally, expand them to 100 words.
This is a wonderful exercise! Here’s what I did with it:
Xenia steered the boat.
As a furious rain assailed the heart of Chicago, Xenia, gripping the wheel firmly, steered the boat.
As a furious rain, more furious than any in living memory, assailed the heart of Chicago, pelting pedestrians and vehicles, Xenia, gripping the wheel firmly, steered the wildly bucking boat.
As a furious rain, more furious than any in living memory, assailed the heart of Chicago, pelting not only pedestrians scrambling for shelter and vehicles laboring through river-like streets, but assaulting the great skyscrapers themselves, cascading off them in colossal waterfalls, Xenia, more or less dry inside her yellow slicker and hat, gripping the wheel firmly, refusing to relinquish it to any mortal (maybe not even to Neptune himself should he appear from the deep), steered the wildly bucking yet totally seaworthy boat northward, toward the line where the dark and furious storm clouds met the brilliant blue sky.
The purpose of this exercise is not to prove that longer sentences are better than shorter ones, but to make certain the writer can control sentence structure at all times. At no time in any of my sample sentences did the subject or verb or object change. Rather, I added many modifiers (some words, some phrases) to give a more detailed picture. I did not let any of these modifiers hijack my sentence and run off with its meaning.
Which is not to say that the 100-word sentence is anything I would ever write — that long sentence is easy to enjoy, but a bit difficult to take seriously.
Still, I kind of like the brilliant blue sky at the end.
Barbara Gregorich’s mystery Sound Proof contains approximately 10,000 sentences . . . none of them a train wreck.