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How to actually write a sentence: The building blocks of written language

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Some time ago, Thomas Basbøll followed up his excellent post on how to write a paragraph with a much more daring endeavour on how to write a sentence. And while the post is a pleasure to read, I think it did not quite overcome the challenge the author stated at the start:

“it is substantially more difficult to explain what one does when one writes a sentence than it is to explain what one does when one composes a paragraph.”

Indeed, it is much more difficult to talk about the mechanics of writing the sentence because we generally want to forget we are composing a sentence, whereas we want to focus on the fact we are composing a paragraph. In this, writing a sentence is much like riding a bicycle. You cannot really do it successfully while attending to every aspect of the process. Basbøll’s metaphor here is very apt:

“it’s easier to give you directions to City Hall than to explain how your legs work. Sentences, we might say, are to paragraphs as taking a step is to going somewhere. It’s only once we pay attention to it that we realize how subtle and how stylish such a simple thing can be.”

The problem with his solution, though, is that it only focused on the role of the sentence in the process of expressing ideas rather than the mechanics of putting a sentence together. This is because a sentence is an artificial construct. We think of it as a natural unit but, in fact, it is only an accident of history that we’ve started dividing chunks of text with full stops and beginning them with capital letters.

The sentence is just one way of articulating a thought. It could be a list. A phrase. Or a whole stream-of-consiousness story. But through conventions, we think of all of these as inferior kinds of writing. Expressing ourselves ‘in complete sentences’ has been agreed to be the hallmark of educated expression. And whether we agree with it or not, sentence is what we’re stuck with.

What is a sentence?

There is much debate in linguistics as to what is the foundational building block of language. It could be a phoneme (sound), syllable (much more natural in speech), word (unit of meaning), utterance or text (one chunk of speech with a message). It could also be a phrase. But by far the best candidate is a clause – a unit with one predicate and one subject – even if it is not always easy to define exactly what predicates and subjects are. But whatever the basic building block of language may be, sentence is definitely not it. It’s not even a unit in conversational speech but despite its visual significance, it is not really the basic building block of written language either.

This is because the boundaries of a sentence are completely arbitrary. They are simply there for the convenience of visual processing. The preceding 2 sentences could just as easily have been one. And many people would insist that they would be better as one and then argue over the proper rules of punctuation.

The real problem, and the one Basbøll is actually writing about, is how to express one’s thoughts through writing in a way that generates mental representations in the mind of the reader that are as close as possible to those of the writer. He illustrates it nicely with a quote from Orwell:

“As George Orwell pointed out many years ago, a great deal of bad writing comes out of stringing words and phrases together that are completely unrelated to any pictures that might form in any human being’s head.”

There is something in this. We might argue that at least what is written represents what is in the writer’s head. But often our written words are just an echo of what was in one’s mind rather than a rendering of a mental image. Who has not had the experience of reading something they have written and not being completely certain what they meant by it?

So, making sure you build the right image in the reader’s mind with your words is excellect advice. But where Orwell, Basbøll’s essay and many others come up short is in explaining how to go about stringing those words together in just the right way so that they can trigger the right image in the reader’s mind. In this post, I’d like to suggest some ways in which we actually may go about learning to write a sentence to achieve this aim.

Dual articulation, riding the bike and Krashen’s monitor

But before we go any further, let’s look a bit more closely at the nature of the difficulty identified by Basbøll. That is: What we really want is to express ideas, not craft sentences. We want to go effortlessly from idea to sentence or better still from idea to paragraph. But we have to pass through many intermediate steps before we get there. Choosing words, calling up their spelling, deciding on their relative placement, whether we should add any endings, and then telling our fingers to type them. It’s even more complex in speech, where we have to arrange our mouths, tongues and teeth into complex configurations and coordinate all of that with the work of the lungs and the epiglottis.

In other words, before we can articulate a thought, we have to articulate a lot of other things. This has been called the ‘dual articulation’ of language. Dual articulation is one of the most underappreciated aspects of language. It is what makes non-native language learning so hard. And writing is certainly not native to any of us.

We spend a lot of time trying to learn all the rules of articulating words and sentences. But in order to successfully and fluently articulate ideas (which is what language is there for after all), we have to make the complex process of articulation of all the building blocks of language disappear. If we were to attend to all aspects of it, we would be permanently tongue-tied.

This is an experience that any learner of a foreign language has had when trying to use their newly acquired knowledge outside the classroom. Stephen Krashen has proposed the monitor hypothesis where the goal of language acquisition is to reduce the role of the grammatical monitor. In the same way that native speakers not only do not pay attention to how they put words and sentences together, learners must get rid of this additional burden. Speaking a language then is just like riding a bike. If you pay attention to all the tiny movements that are involved in peddaling while keeping balance, you fall off. But equally, if you miss any of them out, you fall off, as well.

So what are we, who want to teach others to write sentences, to do? On the one hand, we have to tell them about the principles of sentence structure that they were not able to suss out from their own reading. But on the other hand, we have to lead them to completely forget about all of them when they most matter and just write.

Writing as editing and editing as reading

Luckily, writing is not as ephemeral and fast flowing as speaking. We can always come back to a sentence we wrote and change it beyond all recognition. So, to teach somebody how to write is really teaching them how to edit. And a big part of teaching somebody how to edit, is to teach them about what to pay attention to when reading.

To be clear, a fluent writer can formulate a sentence without much need for further editing. But editing is a process through which such facility can be acquired. And even the most expert writers will need to come back and edit some of their sentences.

What does an editor pay attention to? They will tell you that they look at two things: 1. does the sentence make sense and 2. does it flow from the previous sentences and into those that follow. They will also look at more formal aspects such as spelling, undue repetition of words, stylistic appropriateness, etc. But 1 and 2 (sometimes also called coherence and cohesion) are the fundamental structural jobs a sentence has to perform.

How to craft a sentence

This finally brings us to the ultimate aim of this post. How to actually put a sentence together. This is, of course, impossible to cover in a single blog post. There are shelves in libraries around the world groaning under the weight of volumes that barely scratch the surface of all the aspects of a well-crafted sentence. Yet, people have managed to become competent or even admired writers despite all that. So, there must be way.

Learning to craft a sentence

It is important that aspiring writers think about the learning process as much as about the actual components of a sentence. And the process is very simple:

  1. When you read something, spend at least some of the time, looking at how it is put together. If this is not what you naturally do, set aside some time to do this as part of your reading.
  2. Form hypotheses about the rules the author used and then try them out yourself. It does not matter whether these hypotheses are correct ‘grammatical’ rules or even whether they look like grammatical rules. It just matters that you can do something with them.
  3. Leave what you wrote sit for a while and then come back to it. Read it again and see if it still makes sense. Then go back and look at how what you wrote differs from what you intended. And also compare this with other writing.
  4. Read things out loud or have them read to you (e.g. by text to speech). This will sometimes allow you to notice things about the text that you may skip over when reading silently.
  5. Do this a lot.

With that in mind, let’s finally have a look at some of the things you have to know about how to write a sentence.

Making a sentence make sense – Coherence

For a sentence to fulfil its ideational function, it has to make sense. This means that the sentence must not only contain the idea you want to express, it must not get in the way of that idea. When you’re editing your sentences to make sure they make sense, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it possible to read the sentence in other ways? Sometimes, when a sentence comes out of your head, you are blinded to its other possible meanings. Read it out loud, or ask your software to read it out loud for you.
  • Have you chosen the right words? This seems obvious but choosing the words that mean what you want to say is not a given.
  • Are the subjects of the clauses linked clearly to their verbs? Or, is it clear what the verbs in your sentence are describing? Conversely, is it clear what is happening to the nouns in your sentence? A simple test is to try to reduce the clauses in your sentence just to underlying verb and noun pair (or subject and predicate). Then keep adding the other words until the sentence is back together. If this sounds like old-fashioned parsing, it’s because it is. But sometimes it is necessary to strip your sentence bare and then slowly add only the necessary components back. Often it is the only way to make a sentence that got away from you make sense again.
  • Have you compressed too much into a single sentence? Can you expect that your readers have the same background and can take a hint?
  • Is it clear what the pronouns refer to? When you’re writing, your subject is very active in your head. So, it is very common to keep using pronouns or other vague words to refer to what you’re talking about. It is safer to use pronouns a bit more sparingly and repeat more often. While there’s a lot of research in this area, there is no one rule for how to do this right. But most of us were warned against repetition by our teachers, so a good rule of thumb is to repeat a bit more often than you feel comfortable.
  • Have you used the keywords in the right context? Sometimes words have multiple meanings and the one you are trying to express may not be the one most readers associate with it. Perhaps the best tool to help you here is a corpus. The iWeb corpus is a great tool for checking how words are used.

Making a sentence hold together – Cohesion

But even if your sentences make sense and use all the appropriate conventions, they still have to hold together and fit in with the rest of the text. This is often the easiest problem to overlook because you have an overall picture of the text in your mind, so it all flows perfectly in your head.

But your reader will have to build a picture of the text from scratch. And, also, they may not always read perfectly linearly, so even a sentence read out of context should make it clear where it relates to what came before.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re editing a sentence:

  • Have I made the right logical connections? If one thing is caused by another, is there a ‘because’ or a similar conjunction to make the link explicit?
  • Have I not put too much distance between closely related things? Long parentheticals can be fun but make it very easy for the reader (as well as the writer) to get lost.
  • Have I focused the reader on the right point? The topic (or known information) of a sentence is usually at the beginning and the focus (or new information) should come at the end.
  • Have I given the reader too much work to parse the sentence? If so, can I make it easier by splitting the sentence into shorter chunks?
  • Can I move some things to a later sentence?
  • Have I expressed a clear link to what came previously?
  • Have I placed the sentences in the right order? Don’t be afraid to move a sentence to the end to make sure the key information comes earlier.

A useful tool to use here is the Hemingway Editor. It will highlight sentences that are too long. Now, in many genres, such as academic writing, long sentences are not always a problem. They’re almost the expectation. But a sentence that goes on too long should be a signal to you, that you may not have expressed your idea clearly. I find that my long sentences are often just piles of ideas that need to be taken apart and given more air.

Making a sentence communicate what you want how you want it: Genre and style

Even if your sentence makes sense, your reader must be willing to try to read it. This means that you must meet as many of their expectations as possible so that they can focus on the meaning. You do this by conforming as closely as possible to the conventions of the genre you work within. If you do break these conventions, make sure you’re doing it for a reason.

If you’re writing an academic essay, stay within the [register] of academic language. This is where the various guides on academic English come in. They break down language into communicative functions like argumentation, persuasion or disagreement. And then they give you lots of appropriate phrases to achieve that function.

This is also where you need to do a lot of targetted reading in the area you want to write in. Don’t just read for content, read with an eye on the way people express themselves. Narrow your area as much as you can.

For example, there’s not just one ‘academic English’. Each little subdiscipline has its own conventions, so it’s worth paying attention to those. One piece of advice given is, before you submit a paper to a journal, read other papers that had already been published there. They will give you a clue as to the expectations. This applies at all levels, not just the sentence.

There are technical tools that can help you. For instance, you can paste your text to the Analyze tool on AcademicVocabulary.info and check the words you used against a corpus of academic writing.

Writing and editing process tips

Finally, here are some tips about the process of writing and editing your text at the level of a sentence.

  • Don’t edit every sentence independently – only edit when you’ve written several of them to make sure they hang together.
  • Feel free to delete a sentence. Often, once we’ve written something, we feel possessive about it. But often, deleting something can be very helpful. Like pruning a tree.
  • Feel free to split a sentence in two or three. Sometimes, it will give you space to express yourself more clearly. But sometimes, it will just give your reader a visual cue that a new idea is coming. Or at least some space to take a breath.
  • By the same token, don’t be afraid to start or end a sentence with a preposition or a conjunction. It’s much better than twisting yourself around.
  • Don’t be too scared of long sentences. Sometimes, joining two shorter sentences together makes the text flow better.

Reflections and conclusions

The abiding concern of anyone telling somebody else how to write is whether they themselves measure up to what they preach. Or at least, it should be. We know that Orwell used more passives than average while advising against them, Strunk and White used many of the same constructions they advised against, and the Plain English campaign proponents don’t always use simple language.

Equally, I cannot guarantee that every sentence in this guide is a paragon of what a well-crafted sentence should be. I know my limits. I tend to write more than needed and not cut out enough having learned my English syntax at the feet of PG Wodehouse. But demonstrating perfection at the level of the sentence is not the point of this post, and neither should that be the aim of most writers. The aim is to get the point across and then to move on.

But the most important conclusion is that hesitant writers must pay attention to the learning process. It is not possible to explicitly follow all the tiny little rules for putting together a sentence. You must internalise the shapes and bigger chunks, so that you can focus on experessing your ideas. This can only be achieved through deliberate practice. And editing what you wrote is the most crucial part of that practice. Great writers have great editors, or if they’re poor, they’re their own great editors.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay