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Sentences and Style

Sentences and Style

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Author: Gavin McCall
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This lesson discusses the importance of style to sentence constructions.

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Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? We're going to be learning about the relationship between sentences and a writer's style, including the importance of varied sentences and the difference between active and passive voice. Before we get started, let's define style just to make sure we're all on the same page.

In writing, style means the way someone writes, as opposed to what he or she writes. This includes word choice, tone, and sentence structure. And it's this last aspect, sentence structure, that we'll be focusing on today.

After all, it's one of the biggest components of any writer's style. The way we choose to put our sentences together should have a strong connection to the genre we're writing for, the audience we mean to read our work and the goals we have in writing it.

When looking at writing at the sentence level, our primary goal should be clarity. This is particularly important for academic writing, since it's very easy to write complicated, convoluted sentences when conveying the complex ideas so often required by this kind of writing.

Whenever and however possible, complex ideas should be expressed in simple sentences so as to maximize clarity and to enhance the reader's understanding of the ideas. Basically, when ideas are complicated, the language shouldn't be.

Understanding how to structure sentences with an eye for style requires a basic understanding of syntax, which is defined as the formation and ordering of words into sentences, as well as the study of how words are put in the sentences. Today, we'll be looking from a couple of different directions at how an understanding of syntax can give writers more control over their sentences, not just what they're saying but how.

One of the best ways to ensure your readers are engaged with your writing is to provide them with a variety of sentence structures. And likewise, one of the easiest ways to make sure you bore your readers to death is to use the same sentence structures over and over again. This is called sentence variety, which means including sentences constructed in various ways, including variations between simple and complex.

Writing sentences in a variety of ways, including varying complexity, the number and type of clauses in them, as well as length and how sentences begin, will enhance the reader's experience with and understanding of your text. To see just how much of a difference a little sentence variety can make, consider the following paragraph.

"Abortion is the most divisive issue in America. It is the only one that could drive us to conflict. At the core of the issue is the question of personhood. It's a question of who counts as human. The last time Americans were asking a question like that, we had Civil War."

As you can see, and as you can probably hear, this passage uses, for the most part, a very redundant sentence structure, short, simple sentences most with only a single clause and primarily dependent on passive voice, which we'll talk about soon. Now, however, look at this version.

"Abortion is the single most divisive issue in America today and the only one that could possibly drive us to a conflict on a broader scale than has been seen already. After all, at the core of the issue of abortion is the question of personhood, the question of who counts as human. And the last Americans were divided on a question such as that, it ended in civil war."

Notice any difference? Not with the ideas. Both paragraphs make identical claims and introduce their topic in much the same way. But the second version made use of a variety of sentence structures. And the result, as I hope you can tell, was a much more interesting paragraph.

So as you can see, just changing how sentences are built without changing any of the ideas or even many of the words can make a huge difference in the reading experience. And how does this work?

For the most part, experienced writers have developed a good ear for what kind of sentence structure will work best for whatever their purpose is. But for beginning writers, there's some techniques that can help promote sentence variety.

One way is to combine shorter sentences. This is most of what I did when making the second version of the paragraph. If you find that your text has too many long or overly complicated sentences, though, breaking up a couple into shorter, simpler ones will do wonders for breaking the monotony as well.

But the most common strategy, in my experience at least, is simply to reorganize the sentences in order to vary their structures and opening phrases. This is especially useful if you notice your sentences tend to start in the same way or with the same words. A little bit of mixing can work magic.

The other aspect of sentence structure we need to talk about is active voice and passive voice. These are terms you've probably heard before from English teachers. But you might be surprised how many students have trouble understanding what these terms are and, more importantly, what they can mean for writers.

Active voice is a sentence in which the emphasis is on the subject, the person or thing performing the action. Meanwhile, passive voice refers to sentences that emphasize the object, the person or thing receiving the action. In general, active voice is considered to be stronger, more interesting, and clearer than passive voice constructions.

Of course, there are times when it's important or strategic to use passive voice, like the famous politician's admission that quote "mistakes were made," which definitely avoids saying who might have made the mistakes. Or if the subject is unimportant or unknown, passive voice is the way to go. That being said, overuse of passive voice or using it in situations that don't call for it can slow down a narrative and bore readers, in part because passive voice constructions tend to be repetitive.

Look at this sentence, for example. It's inspired by a certain little girl I know. "The lamp got broken." Here, the use is strategic. But unless we as writers are trying to avoid saying who broke the lamp, why not just say, "I broke the lamp" and be done with.

Our readers are going to be asking the question anyway, which will probably distract them from the rest of the narrative or essay, which is almost always a bad thing. And if we're trying to write anything more complicated than that, using passive voice will slow us down even more.

For example, "the brakes were slammed on by her as the car slid down the hill." This sentence puts the emphasis on the object of the action, the brakes being slammed, rather than the subject, her. It should sound strange, like something no one would ever actually say. Rather, we just speak and we should almost always just write in active voice.

"She slammed on the brakes as the car slid down the hill." Notice how much more quickly this sentence moves and not just because it's shorter. By prioritizing the action in a more logical way, x does y to z, rather than y was done to z by x, your readers will have an easier time understanding what's happened, which improves the clarity of your writing.

Consider this very simple sentence. "The boy was bitten by the dog." This isn't hard to understand really. But compare it to the active voice construction, "the dog bit the boy," so much quicker so much clearer.

And now for one last example, "the mid-term was failed by almost half the class." Here, again, we've got a fairly simple idea to convey. But because of the passive construction, it's not immediately apparent to readers what's happened, because they lack the context provided by who's doing the action, failing, until the very end of the sentence.

If it was written like this, however, that changes. "Almost half the class failed the mid-term." Here, the sentence is not only shorter and clearer, but since it emphasizes the subject, almost half the class, the real point of the sentence comes through immediately. After all, the point wasn't to say that the mid-term was failed but to see how many students failed it, right? Right.

So what did we learn today? We learned about the way sentence structures impact a writer's style. We look at ways to avoid monotonous, repetitive sentences and talked about how choosing active voice over passive voice constructions can help us keep our writing quick, clear, and dynamic. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Active Voice

    A sentence in which the emphasis is on the subject of the sentence, the person or thing performing the action.

  • Passive Voice

    A sentence in which the emphasis is on the object of the sentence, the person or thing receiving the action.

  • Sentence Variety

    Including sentences constructed in various ways, including variations between simple and complex.

  • Style

    The way a person writes, as opposed to what a person has written, including word choice, tone, and sentence structure.

  • Syntax

    The formation and ordering of words into sentences as well as the study of how words are formed into sentences.