Note: Before you can start to refine and improve your style, you have to know the characteristics of your style. In other words, you have to be able to describe it. Together, the four steps below are a useful quantitative way of analyzing and thinking about style. In these steps you consider sentence length, emphasis, sentence variety, and first elements.
Count the number of words in each sentence in your manuscript. List each number on a piece of paper, drawing a line under the number for the last sentence in each paragraph. For example, for the “Note” above, the list would look like this:
Looking at the list tells us not only the length of each sentence, but the way the sentences group themselves in paragraphs.
Look at the list and answer the following questions. Assume that sentences of 1-20 words are short; 21-45 are medium; 46-70 are long; 71+ are extra long.
- How many words are in the longest sentence?
- How many words are in the shortest sentence?
- Are the long sentences clumped together or spread out?
- Are the short sentences clumped together or spread out?
- Do some paragraphs contain mostly (or only) long sentences?
- Do some paragraphs contain mostly (or only) short sentences?
- What’s the average length of your sentences?
Advice: Variety in sentence length is usually more effective than unchanging sentence length because readers subconsciously get bored with the same length all the time. Short sentences are often useful for driving home a point or making a dramatic impact; longer sentences are useful for summing up a series of points at the end of a paragraph (or section), for qualifying an idea stated in a previous sentence, or for making a transition from one idea to another. If the majority of your sentences are long or extra long, try breaking a few of them into short sentences (only you can decide which points you wish to emphasize or qualify). If the majority of your sentences are short, try combining some of them into longer sentences. Doing so will help clarify the relationship between the ideas contained in each short sentence.
Emphasis in your sentences
Note: all the links in “Emphasis in your sentences” require an MIT certificate.
1. Underline the most important thing in each sentence in your manuscript.
2. Where is that most important thing located – at the beginning of the sentence? at the end? in the middle?
3. Advice: Emphasis is a complicated issue, but here are some guidelines to follow:
- All other things being equal, the most emphatic spot in the sentence is at the end; the second most emphatic spot is at the beginning; the middle is the least emphatic spot and hence receives the least attention from readers. The idea or words you want emphasized should be at the beginning or at the end of the sentence.
- All other things being equal, old information (information your readers already know either in general – the sun rises in the east – or from earlier parts of your paper) should not be emphasized; it should be used to lead into new information (information that you can’t assume your readers know.) New information should usually be placed at the end of sentences; old information is placed at the beginning as a transition from the previous sentence.
- All other things being equal, the subject slot and the predicate verb slot are the two most emphatic “function” slots in a sentence. They gain even greater emphasis if they occupy the beginning or end of the sentence.
- All other things being equal, independent clauses receive more emphasis than dependent clauses. This guideline coincides with the fact that the sentence’s subject and verb are emphatic slots and are always found in the independent clause.
- All other things being equal, any item taken out of its “normal” order receives more emphasis. The “normal” order of English sentences is subject – verb – object/modifier – dependent clause (e.g., “She cried for a long time because I told the truth”). Simply moving the dependent clause to the front of the sentence gives it more emphasis for two reasons: it’s out of normal order and it’s now in the second most emphatic spot (the beginning). “Because I told the truth, she cried for a long time.”
Note that anything out-of-order gets emphasis (e.g., “for a long time she cried”). The length of her crying gets significantly more emphasis here because it’s out-of-order. Also, the middle of the sentence gains some emphasis because the sentence’s subject (“she”) is located there.
- Nouns located in prepositional phrases receive little emphasis.
- Never end a sentence with a transitional word or phrase; move the transition to the front of the sentence.
1. Review the standard ways of analyzing sentence structure:
- simple sentence: “I told the truth.”
- compound sentence: “I told the truth, and she cried.”
- complex sentence: “She cried because I told the truth.” or “When I told the truth, she cried.”
- Compound-complex: “After I told the truth, she cried and I felt guilty.”
2. Make a list of the structures of all your sentences, using the letter code above (a for simple, d for compound-complex). Underline the letter for the last sentence in each paragraph.
As with length, variety in structure piques the reader’s interest and also helps you see the connections between your ideas. Moreover, varying the structures will help you place the emphasis more effectively.
Further advice: Remember that using modifiers is also an effective way to vary your style:
- resumptive modifier: “In Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Lily Bart enjoys the lifestyle of the rich, a lifestyle filled with parties, leisure, and luxury.”
Here a key word – lifestyle – is repeated and elaborated upon.
- summative modifier: “In Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Lily Bart often feels anxiety about her growing debts, an experience that deepens her desire to marry a wealth man.”
[Here a word – experience – sums up or renames the concept in the first part of the sentence and new information about it is added.]
- free modifier: “Lily is a woman of powerful emotions, driven by a fear of dinginess and shaken by the love she feels for a poor man.”
[Here past participles – driven, shaken – are added to the end of the sentence to elaborate upon the final noun before the comma – emotions.]
“Failing to go to church with Percy, gambling at cards, and choosing Selden’s company over his, Lily loses her chance to ‘secure’ Percy’s marriage proposal.”
[Here, present participles are placed at the beginning to elaborate upon the sentence’s predicate verb – loses.]
First elements are the first grammatically detachable units of a sentence. For example, in this sentence the transitional phrase “For example” is the first detachable unit. The first element in this sentence, however, is the subject “the first element.” If the first element is not the subject, it is often (but not always) followed by a comma.
Consider the following examples
1. I ran down the street screaming because my shoes were on fire. (I, the subject, is the first element.)
2. Screaming, I ran down the street because my shoes were on fire. (Screaming, a present participle, is the first element.)
3. Down the street I ran screaming because my shoes were on fire. (Down the street, a prepositional phrase, is the first element.)
4. Because my shoes were on fire, I ran down the street screaming. (Because my shoes were on fire, a dependent clause, is the first element.)
5. Further, I ran down the street screaming because my shoes were on fire. (Further, a transitional word, is the first element.)
6. I ran down the street screaming with fiery shoes on my feet. (I, the subject, is the first element.)
Implications of first elements
Notice that sentences #1 and #6 seem to feel the same when we read them. In other words, two such structures back-to-back would not feel different to us as we read, hence we would have no sense of variety. Yet their structures are different – #1 is a complex sentence while #6 is a simple sentence. Variety in structure alone, then, cannot guarantee a sense of variety in style.
In addition to varying the length and structure of your sentences, vary their first elements as well. No doubt the majority of your sentences will begin with the subject, but if more than 3 consecutive sentences start with the subject (or with any other first element), you should probably change one of them.
Analyze your own first elements
Below is a list of common first elements. Beside each first element, write the number of sentences in your paper that begin with that type of first element.
- Subject of the sentence
- Transitional word or phrase
- Prepositional phrase
- Expletives (there, it)
- Modifiers (e.g., adverbs such as perhaps, participles)
- Dependent clauses
- Inverted verbs (Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?)
- Interrogatives (e.g., Why, How)
- Objects (To me he gave the book, The book he gave to me)
- Predicate adjectives or nominatives (Happy she was; A doctor she was)
- Other (anything you can’t identify)