Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sentence Structure: The Backbone of Good Writing

What's wrong with these sentences?

"His house had been battered by the winter storm. Now he was leaving, the snow curled around his ankles. He was thinking that he should have worn his scarf, nevertheless, he walked to his car. Hanging in the closet, he wondered if it would have kept him warm. Even though it was old and threadbare."



Let's look at the first line: His house had been battered by the winter storm. It's written in the passive voice, where the doer of the action -- the storm -- is not positioned as the subject of the sentence, and a past participle (a verb ending in "ed") follows some form of "to be" -- is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. In this sentence, had been battered clues us in to the use of passive voice. 

Good writers avoid passive voice; instead, they form their sentences using the active voice. The winter storm battered his house. "Battered" is past tense, but active voice. "Storm" now stands where it should as the subject of the sentence, while "house" is positioned as the object.

Now he was leaving, the snow curled around his ankles. A run-on sentence consists of two independent clauses incorrectly joined together. Independent clauses must have both a subject and a verb. Now he was leaving is a clause because he constitutes the subject and was leaving constitutes the verb. The snow curled around his ankles is also a clause; snow is the subject and curled is the verb. Both clauses could stand alone as sentences. We call this kind of run-on sentence a "comma-splice". A comma connects the two clauses, but the comma is not followed by a conjunction (and, or, nor, but, so, yet, and sometimes for). We can fix this sentence by dividing it into two sentences. Now he was leaving. The snow curled around his ankles. We can also fix it by inserting a conjunction. Now he was leaving, and the snow curled around his ankles. Or we could substitute a semicolon for the comma. Now he was leaving; the snow curled around his ankles.

We could make the sentence even better by substituting a more active verb for was leaving. Snow curled around his ankles when he stepped outside. Or: He stepped outside and snow curled around his ankles.

He was thinking that he should have worn his scarf, nevertheless, he walked to his car. This is another example of a run-on sentence. We can fix it in two ways. He was thinking that he should have worn his scarf. Nevertheless, he walked to his car. Or we can substitute a semicolon for the first comma. We can also drop the word "that" without losing the meaning of the sentence or confusing the reader.

Hanging in the closet, he wondered if it would have kept him warm. Unlike a clause, a phrase contains no subject for its verb. Phrases merely modify, or clarify, the rest of the sentence. In this sentence, hanging in the closet is called a "misplaced modifier phrase" because it confuses rather than clarifies the sentence. "He" is not hanging in the closet. "It" -- his scarf -- is hanging in the closet. 

Even though it was old and threadbare. This is a sentence fragment, also called an afterthought fragment because it supplies information that reads as an afterthought regarding the scarf and includes the transitional words "even though". The correct way to write this is: He wondered if it would have kept him warm, even though it was old and threadbare. 

Most of us would be hard pressed to recall every rule of grammar taught to us in our youth. Nevertheless, without even consciously thinking about it, we can usually recognize good sentence structure when we read the work of accomplished authors. If we're smart, we'll pay attention to how those authors write, and we'll learn from them. 

So keep reading, my friends, because the truth is, I've never met a good writer who wasn't also an avid reader. 

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10 comments:

  1. I'm going to disagree on a couple points. One - sometimes passive voice is exactly what we want to use and does not equate to bad writing. Two - fragments can be used to good effect; they need not always be "corrected."

    Comma splices make me twitchy, though, as well as dangling participles. I think the trick is to know the rules so we can make conscious choices in breaking them.

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    1. Yes, I agree, Nancy. Passive voice definitely has a place in all types of writing. I was trying to point out that most writers wouldn't want to use it continually in their stories. I recently edited a new writer's manuscript. She used passive voice over and over again in sentences where she could easily have used active voice. When read aloud, her sentences sounded cumbersome. I think we all try to avoid that in our writing.

      Yes, I didn't mention intentional fragments because I didn't believe the line I quoted constituted an intentional fragment. Those kinds of fragments are used for emphasis or to add to the drama of the moment. A character could say, "Good grief!" or "How stupid" or "What a dummy". All three would count as intentional fragments and would certainly be grammatically acceptable.

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  2. I enjoyed the blog. I think we all need to be reminded of the rules so we can make decisions whether or not to break them for effect.
    Teresa R.

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    1. Teresa, it's difficult to write a blog on sentence structure without knowing the skill level of your audience. You've written quite a few novels, plus you have a background in education, so I assume what I wrote in my post wasn't new to you. You're at that stage in your writing life where you can break an occasional rule and do it effectively. I often edit first-time authors, though, so I see a lot of newbie writing mistakes. (I also make mistakes in my own writing, mistakes I hopefully catch when I'm self-editing my work and doing revisions.) So this blog was meant to help all of us who are simply trying to write the best possible story. Thanks for your comments!

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  3. Good lesson in active writing. Thanks, Mary, for the reminders and for identifying each error.

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    1. You're such an accomplished writer, Maris, that everything I wrote here is probably just old news to you.:) Thanks for stopping by, though. I appreciate your kind words.

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  4. Clear, thoughtful explanations, Mary. It always helps to see examples--I love "hanging in the closet." :-) Keep up the good work.

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  5. Thanks for stopping by, Marilyn and Ellis. I appreciate your comments!

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