6 Sentence Variety

Learning Objectives

Type your learning objectives here.

  • Identify ways to vary sentence structure.
  • Write and revise sentence structure at the beginning of sentences.
  • Write and revise sentence structure by connecting ideas.
  • Use correct punctuation when creating a variety of sentence structures.

Incorporating Sentence Variety

Experienced writers incorporate sentence variety into their writing by varying sentence style and structure. Using a mixture of different sentence structures reduces repetition and adds emphasis to important points in the text. Read the following example:

During my time in office I have achieved several goals. I have helped increase funding for local schools. I have reduced crime rates in the neighborhood. I have encouraged young people to get involved in their community. My competitor argues that she is the better choice in the upcoming election. I argue that it is ridiculous to fix something that isn’t broken. If you reelect me this year, I promise to continue to serve this community.

In this extract from an election campaign, the writer uses short, simple sentences of a similar length and style. What did you think about this paragraph? Writers often mistakenly believe that this technique makes the text more clear for the reader, but the result is a choppy, unsophisticated paragraph that does not grab the audience’s attention. Now read the revised paragraph with sentence variety:

During my time in office, I have achieved several goals such as increase funding for local schools, reduce crime rates in the neighborhood, and encourage young people to get involved in their community. Why fix what isn’t broken? My competitor argues that she is the better choice, but by electing me, I will continue to achieve great things for this community. Don’t take a chance on someone unknown; vote for the candidate you know has proven success.

Notice how introducing a short rhetorical question among the longer sentences in the paragraph is an effective means of keeping the reader’s attention. In the revised version, the writer combines the choppy sentences at the beginning into one longer sentence, which adds rhythm and interest to the paragraph.

Tip

Effective writers often implement the “rule of three,” which is basically the thought that things that contain three elements are more memorable and more satisfying to readers than any other number. Try to use a series of three when providing examples, grouping adjectives, or generating a list.

Using Sentence Variety at the Beginning of Sentences

Read the following sentences and consider what they all have in common: John and Amanda will be analyzing this week’s financial report.

The car screeched to a halt just a few inches away from the young boy. Students rarely come to the exam adequately prepared.

If you are having trouble figuring out why these sentences are similar, try underlining the subject in each. You will notice that the subject is positioned at the beginning of each sentence—John and Amanda, the car, students. Since the subject-verb-object pattern is the simplest sentence structure, many writers tend to overuse this technique, which can result in repetitive paragraphs with little sentence variety.

Naomi wrote an essay about the 2008 government bailout. Read this excerpt from Naomi’s essay:

The subprime mortgage crisis left many financial institutions in jeopardy. Some economists agreed that the banks were too big to fail. Other economists agreed that an infusion of credit and debit would exacerbate the problem. The government finally opted to bail out the banks. t required $700 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities in 2008. The government optimistically expects these assets will rise in value. This will profit both the banks and the government itself.

This section examines several ways to introduce sentence variety at the beginning of sentences, using Naomi’s essay as an example.

Starting a Sentence with an Adverb

One technique you can use so as to avoid beginning a sentence with the subject is to use an adverb. An adverb is a word that describes a verb, adjective, or other adverb and often ends in -ly. Examples of adverbs include quickly, softly, quietly, angrily, and timidly. Read the following sentences:

She slowly turned the corner and peered into the murky basement.

Slowly, she turned the corner and peered into the murky basement.

In the second sentence, the adverb slowly is placed at the beginning of the sentence. If you read the two sentences aloud, you will notice that moving the adverb changes the rhythm of the sentence and slightly alters its meaning. The second sentence emphasizes how the subject moves—slowly—creating a buildup of tension. This technique is effective in fictional writing.

Note that an adverb used at the beginning of a sentence is usually followed by a comma. A comma indicates that the reader should pause briefly, which creates a useful rhetorical device. Read the following sentences aloud and consider the effect of pausing after the adverb:

Cautiously, he unlocked the kennel and waited for the dog’s reaction.

Solemnly, the policeman approached the mayor and placed him under arrest.

Suddenly, he slammed the door shut and sprinted across the street.

In an academic essay, moving an adverb to the beginning of a sentence serves to vary the rhythm of a paragraph and increase sentence variety.

The subprime mortgage crisis left many financial institutions in jeopardy. Some economists agreed that the banks were too big to fail. Other economists agreed that an infusion of credit and debit would exacerbate the problem. The government finally opted to bail out the banks. t required $700 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities in 2008. The government optimistically expects these assets will rise in value. This will profit both the banks and the government itself.

Naomi has used two adverbs in her essay that could be moved to the beginning of their respective sentences. Notice how the following revised version creates a more varied paragraph:

The subprime mortgage crisis left many financial institutions in jeopardy. Some economists agreed that the banks were too big to fail. Other economists agreed that an infusion of credit and debit would exacerbate the problem. Finally, the government opted to bail out the banks. t required $700 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities in 2008. Optimistically, the government expects these assets will rise in value. This will profit both the banks and the government itself.

Tip

Adverbs of time—adverbs that indicate when an action takes place—do not always require a comma when used at the beginning of a sentence. Adverbs of time include words such as yesterday, today, later, sometimes, often, and now.

Exercise 1

On your own sheet of paper or computer, rewrite the the sentences from the activity above by moving the adverbs to the beginning.

Starting a Sentence with a Prepositional Phrase

A prepositional phrase is a group of words that behaves as an adjective or an adverb, modifying a noun or a verb. Prepositional phrases contain a preposition (a word that specifies place, direction, or time) and an object of the preposition (a noun phrase or pronoun that follows the preposition).

above across against after among around at
before behind below beneath beside between beyond
by despite except for from inside into
like near off on over past since
through throughout till toward under underneath until
up with without

Read the following sentence:

The terrified child hid underneath the table.

In this sentence, the prepositional phrase is underneath the table. The preposition underneath relates to the object that follows the preposition—the table. Adjectives may be placed between the preposition and the object in a prepositional phrase.

The terrified child hid underneath the heavy wooden table.

Some prepositional phrases can be moved to the beginning of a sentence in order to create variety in a piece of writing. Look at the following revised sentence:

Underneath the heavy wooden table, the terrified child hid.

Notice that when the prepositional phrase is moved to the beginning of the sentence, the emphasis shifts from the subject—the terrified child—to the location in which the child is hiding. Words that are placed at the beginning or end of a sentence generally receive the greatest emphasis. Take a look at the following examples. The prepositional phrase is underlined in each:

The bandaged man waited in the doctor’s office.

In the doctor’s office, the bandaged man waited.

My train leaves the station at 6:45 a.m.

At 6:45 a.m., my train leaves the station.

Teenagers exchange drugs and money under the railway bridge.

Under the railway bridge, teenagers exchange drugs and money.

Prepositional phrases are useful in any type of writing. Take another look at Naomi’s essay on the government bailout.

The subprime mortgage crisis left many financial institutions in jeopardy. Some economists agreed that the banks were too big to fail. Other economists agreed that an infusion of credit and debit would exacerbate the problem. The government finally opted to bail out the banks. t required $700 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities in 2008. The government optimistically expects these assets will rise in value. This will profit both the banks and the government itself.

Now the same passage with prepositional phrases (underlined). Notice how they add additional information to the text and provide a sense of flow to the essay, making it less choppy and more pleasurable to read.

Throughout 2007 and 2008, the subprime mortgage crisis worsened, leaving many financial institutions in jeopardy. According to some economists, the banks were too big to fail. Other economists argues that an infusion of credit and debit would exacerbate the problem. Despite public objections, the government finally opted to bail about the banks. Since the 2008 bill passed, it has acquired $700 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities. The government optimistically expects these assets will rise in value. This will profit both the banks and the government itself.

Unmovable Prepositional Phrases

Not all prepositional phrases can be placed at the beginning of a sentence. Read the following sentence:

I would like a chocolate sundae without whipped cream.

In this sentence, without whipped cream is the prepositional phrase. Because it describes the chocolate sundae, it cannot be moved to the beginning of the sentence. “Without whipped cream I would like a chocolate sundae” does not make as much (if any) sense. To determine whether a prepositional phrase can be moved, we must determine the meaning of the sentence.

Overuse of Prepositional Phrases

Experienced writers often include more than one prepositional phrase in a sentence; however, it is important not to overload your writing. Using too many modifiers in a paragraph may create an unintentionally comical effect as the following example shows:

The treasure lay buried under the old oak tree, behind the crumbling fifteenth- century wall, near the schoolyard, where children played merrily during their lunch hour, unaware of the riches that remained hidden beneath their feet.

A sentence is not necessarily effective just because it is long and complex. If your sentence appears cluttered with prepositional phrases, divide it into two shorter sentences. The previous sentence is far more effective when written as two simpler sentences:

The treasure lay buried under the old oak tree, behind the crumbling fifteenth- century wall. In the nearby schoolyard, children played merrily during their lunch hour, unaware of the riches that remained hidden beneath their feet.

Starting a Sentence by Inverting Subject and Verb

As we noted earlier, most writers follow the subject-verb-object sentence structure. In an inverted sentence, the order is reversed so that the subject follows the verb. Read the following sentence pairs:

  1. A truck was parked in the driveway.
  2. Parked in the driveway was a truck.
  1. A copy of the file is attached.
  2. Attached is a copy of the file.

Notice how the second sentence in each pair places more emphasis on the subject—a truck in the first example and the file in the second. This technique is useful for drawing the reader’s attention to your primary area of focus. We can apply this method to an academic essay. Take another look at Naomi’s paragraph.

The subprime mortgage crisis left many financial institutions in jeopardy. Some economists agreed that the banks were too big to fail. Other economists agreed that an infusion of credit and debit would exacerbate the problem. The government finally opted to bail out the banks. It required $700 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities in 2008. The government optimistically expects these assets will rise in value. This will profit both the banks and the government itself.

To emphasize the subject in certain sentences, Naomi can invert the traditional sentence structure. Read her revised paragraph:

The subprime mortgage crisis left many financial institutions in jeopardy. The banks were too big to fail, argued some economists. Other economists agreed that an infusion of credit and debit would exacerbate the problem. The government finally opted to bail out the banks. It required $700 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities in 2008. These assets will rise in value, expects the government optimistically. This will profit both the banks and the government itself.

Notice that in the first underlined sentence, the subject (some economists) is placed after the verb (argued). In the second underlined sentence, the subject (the government) is placed after the verb (expects).

Exercise 2

On your own sheet of paper, rewrite the following sentences as inverted sentences.

  1. Teresa will never attempt to run another marathon.
  2. A detailed job description is enclosed with this letter.
  3. Bathroom facilities are across the hall to the left of the water cooler.
  4. The well-dressed stranger stumbled through the doorway.
  5. My colleagues remain unconvinced about the proposed merger.

Connecting Ideas to Increase Sentence Variety

Reviewing and rewriting the beginning of sentences is a good way of introducing sentence variety into your writing. Another useful technique is to connect two sentences using a modifier, a relative clause, or an appositive. This section examines how to connect ideas across several sentences in order to increase sentence variety and improve writing.

Joining Ideas Using an –ing Modifier

Sometimes it is possible to combine two sentences by converting one of them into a modifier using the -ing verb form—singing, dancing, swimming. A modifier is a word or phrase that qualifies the meaning of another element in the sentence. Read the following example:

Original sentences: Steve checked the computer system. He discovered a virus.

Revised sentence: Checking the computer system, Steve discovered a virus.

To connect two sentences using an -ing modifier, add -ing to one of the verbs in the sentences (checking) and delete the subject (Steve). Use a comma to separate the modifier from the subject of the sentence. It is important to make sure that the main idea in your revised sentence is contained in the main clause, not in the modifier. In this example, the main idea is that Steve discovered a virus, not that he checked the computer system.

In the following example, an -ing modifier indicates that two actions are occurring at the same time:

Noticing the police car, she shifted gears and slowed down.

This means that she slowed down at the same time she noticed the police car.

Barking loudly, the dog ran across the driveway.

This means that the dog barked as it ran across the driveway.

You can add an -ing modifier to the beginning or the end of a sentence, depending on which fits best.

Beginning: Conducting a survey among her friends, Amanda found that few were happy in their jobs.

End: Maria filed the final report, meeting her deadline.

Joining Ideas Using an –ed Modifier

Some sentences can be combined using an -ed verb form—stopped, finished, played. To use this method, one of the sentences must contain a form of be as a helping verb in addition to the -ed verb form. Take a look at the following example:

Original sentences: The Ramirez family was delayed by a traffic jam. They arrived several hours after the party started.

Revised sentence: Delayed by a traffic jam, the Ramirez family arrived several hours after the party started.

In the original version, was acts as a helping verb—it has no meaning by itself, but it serves a grammatical function by placing the main verb (delayed) in the perfect tense.

To connect two sentences using an -ed modifier, drop the helping verb (was) and the subject (the Jones family) from the sentence with an -ed verb form. This forms a modifying phrase (delayed by a traffic jam) that can be added to the beginning or end of the other sentence according to which fits best. As with the -ing modifier, be careful to place the word that the phrase modifies immediately after the phrase in order to avoid a dangling modifier.

Using -ing or -ed modifiers can help streamline your writing by drawing obvious connections between two sentences. Take a look at how Naomi might use modifiers in her paragraph.

The subprime mortgage crisis left many financial institutions in jeopardy. Some economists agreed that the banks were too big to fail. Other economists agreed that an infusion of credit and debit would exacerbate the problem. Opting to bail out the banks, the government acquired $700 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities in 2008. The government optimistically expects these assets will rise in value. This will profit both the banks and the government itself.

The revised version of the essay uses the -ing modifier opting to draw a connection between the government’s decision to bail out the banks and the result of that decision— the acquisition of the mortgage-backed securities.

Joining Ideas Using a Relative Clause

Another technique that writers use to combine sentences is to join them using a relative clause. A relative clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb and describes a noun. Relative clauses function as adjectives by answering questions such as which one? or what kind? Relative clauses begin with a relative pronoun, such as who, whose, whom, which, or that. Read the following examples:

Original sentences: The managing director is visiting the company next week. He lives in Seattle.

Revised sentence: The managing director, who lives in Seattle, is visiting the company next week.

To connect two sentences using a relative clause, substitute the subject of one of the sentences (he) for a relative pronoun (who). This gives you a relative clause (who lives in Seattle) that can be placed next to the noun it describes (the managing director).

Make sure to keep the sentence you want to emphasize as the main clause. For example, reversing the main clause and subordinate clause in the preceding sentence emphasizes where the managing director lives, not the fact that he is visiting the company.

Revised sentence: The managing director, who is visiting the company next week, lives in Seattle.

Relative clauses are a useful way of providing additional, nonessential information in a sentence. Take a look at how Naomi might incorporate relative clauses into her essay. Notice how the underlined relative clauses can be removed from Naomi’s essay without changing the meaning of the sentence.

The subprime mortgage crisis, which had been steadily building throughout 2007 and 2008, left many financial institutions in jeopardy. Some economists, who opposed the bailout, argued that an infusion of credit and debt would exacerbate the problem. The government finally optioned to bail out the banks. It acquired $700 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities in 2008. agreed that the banks were too big to fail. Other economists agreed that an infusion of credit and debit would exacerbate the problem. The government optimistically expects these assets will rise in value. This will profit both the banks and the government itself.

Tip

To check the punctuation of relative clauses, assess whether or not the clause can be taken out of the sentence without changing its meaning. If the relative clause is not essential to the meaning of the sentence, it should be placed in commas. If the relative clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence, it does not require commas around it.

Joining Ideas Using an Appositive

An appositive is a word or group of words that describes or renames a noun or pronoun. Incorporating appositives into your writing is a useful way of combining sentences that are too short and choppy. Take a look at the following example:

Original sentences: Harland Sanders began serving food for hungry travelers in 1930. He is Colonel Sanders or “the Colonel.”

Revised sentence: Harland Sanders, “the Colonel,” began serving food for hungry travelers in 1930.

In the revised sentence, “the Colonel” is an appositive because it renames Harland Sanders. To combine two sentences using an appositive, drop the subject and verb from the sentence that renames the noun and turn it into a phrase. Note that in the previous example, the appositive is positioned immediately after the noun it describes. An appositive may be placed anywhere in a sentence, but it must come directly before or after the noun to which it refers:

Appositive after noun: Scott, a poorly trained athlete, was not expected to win the race.

Appositive before noun: A poorly trained athlete, Scott was not expected to win the race.

Unlike relative clauses, appositives are always punctuated by a comma or a set commas. Take a look at the way Naomi uses appositives to include additional facts in her essay.

The subprime mortgage crisis, the biggest financial disaster since the 1929 Wall Street crash, left many financial institutions in jeopardy. Some economists argues that the banks were too big to fail. Other economists argued that an infusion of credit and debt would exacerbate the problem. The government, the institution that would decide the fate of the banks, finally opted to bail them out. It acquired $700 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities in 2008. The government optimistically expects these assets will rise in value. This will profit both the banks and the government itself.

Exercise 3

On your own sheet of paper, rewrite the following sentence pairs as one sentence using the techniques you have learned in this section.

  1. Baby sharks are called pups. Pups can be born in one of three ways.
  2. The Pacific Ocean is the world’s largest ocean. It extends from the Arctic in the north to the Southern Ocean in the south.
  3. Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics. He is a champion swimmer.
  4. Punam introduced her colleague Timothy to her husband, Mahendra. She speculated that the two of them would have a lot in common.
  5. Cacao is harvested by hand. It is then sold to chocolate-processing companies at the Coffee, Sugar, and Cocoa Exchange.

Key Takeaways

  • Sentence variety reduces repetition in a piece of writing and adds emphasis to important points in the text.
  • Sentence variety can be introduced to the beginning of sentences by starting a sentence with an adverb, starting a sentence with a prepositional phrase, or by inverting the subject and verb.
  • Combine ideas, using modifiers, relative clauses, or appositives, to achieve sentence variety.

 

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College ESL Writers: Mohawk College Edition by Barbara Hall and Elizabeth Wallace is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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