In the last two posts, I’ve been looking at what a variety of sentence forms means, and how you can use these specifically on Paper 1 to help you improve your mark for technical accuracy with narrative or descriptive writing.
To recap, ‘a wide range of sentence forms’ may include some of the following:
- simple sentences
- compound sentences
- complex sentences
- sentence fragments
- compound-complex (and maybe complex-compound – who knows in these turbulent and anarchic times?)
- declarative sentences
- interrogative sentences (a.k.a. questions)
- exclamatory sentences
- imperative sentences
- and negative versions of all of the above.
You may also find it helpful to remember that this is a ‘may use’ list, not a ‘must use’ list. I’d hate to think of people turning this into a checklist. This is your toolbox. You don’t have to use all the tools. You just need the right one for the job. Just because you have a hacksaw in your toolkit doesn’t mean you have to use it.
I know you understand why those floaty-light compound sentences can add a certain quality to your writing in description, and why those terse little simple sentences and fragments are so effective at changing the pace, speeding things up and adding a bit of drama.
But how on earth would you use them on Paper 2?
When you’re writing to explain, you may not think you need to bother. Surely ‘pace’ and ‘suspense’ aren’t that relevant?
We’re going to look at a few examples from different non-narrative texts where they’re explaining a point of view, looking at what type of sentences they’re using and why they’ve chosen that particular tool for the job. My favourite David Mitchell will appear, simply because he’s a man who understands the delights of the sentence form. But I’ll be picking out other examples from the opinion columns in the news, as well as some other examples from different non-fiction I’m reading.
Let’s start with a bit of David Mitchell. This is the conclusion of an article whose headline is “Why do our spies keep telling us everything?”
The widely reported terrorist threat, the stories of “near misses” and “heightened terror alerts”, and the announcement of more investment to “keep us safe” create, from the security services’ point of view, a virtuous circle of increasing funding. Modern espionage is about what they’re seen to do, when it used to be the opposite. It’s become my sort of job after all.
Let’s look at these three sentences one at a time.
The widely reported terrorist threat, the stories of “near misses” and “heightened terror alerts”, and the announcement of more investment to “keep us safe” create, from the security services’ point of view, a virtuous circle of increasing funding.
So, where’s that main verb? Hidden. Hidden right in the middle. It’s “create”, just in case you haven’t spotted it. I’m just going to take out the embedded clause to make it a little more simple, and underline the verb.
The widely reported terrorist threat, the stories of “near misses” and “heightened terror alerts”, and the announcement of more investment to “keep us safe” create a virtuous circle of increasing funding.
So what is the subject? What “creates”?
- The widely reported terrorist threat.
- The stories of near misses.
- The stories of “heightened terror alerts”
- The announcement of more investment to “keep us safe”.
Four subjects then, for one verb.
Why on earth would you have four subjects? For me, I think Mitchell is showing us that there are multiple reasons why spies keep telling us everything. More funding is the consequence or outcome, and those four subjects are four ways in which MI6 gets more funding.
That list adds to the effect that there is more than one reason. Why would he do this? To increase emphasis on the fact that there are lots of reasons why MI6 wants us to know everything they are doing. What we have here is a compound subject and a single verb. Because we have a compound subject, it avoids repetition. Just as the compound sentence in narrative or descriptive writing enables us to slow down or to dwell on a thing, so we find the same effect in non-narrative writing too. It allows us to dwell on the many reasons. See how he also uses an embedded detail just as Angela Carter does so that he can stretch the sentence out even further?
The second sentence is shorter:
Modern espionage is about what they’re seen to do, when it used to be the opposite.
Two verbs and a dependent clause, but you can also see how this sentence is much simpler. Like other writers, you find David Mitchell also using a more simple word choice too. Gone are the polysyllabic words like “announcement” and “investment” and we find ourselves with a string of monosyllables: “what they’re seen to do, when it used to be the”
You sense a simplification. From a long, compound listing of subjects in the first sentence, along with its embedded detail, we then have a shorter, more monosyllabic sentence. And we reach a crescendo with the third:
It’s become my sort of job after all.
And a simple sentence to finish off.
Those simple sentences in non-fiction are just fabulous at getting your main point across. If you want to highlight or underline an idea, a simple sentence is the old-fashioned way of drawing attention to it and making it easy to understand.
The next is from The Guardian’s Gary Younge, and an article whose headline reads: “Nearly every mass killer is a man. We should all be talking more about that.”
There will be, though, no appeals for moderate men to denounce toxic masculinity, no extra surveillance where men congregate, no government-sponsored schemes to promote moderate manhood, or travel bans for men. Indeed, the one thing that is consistently true for such incidents, whether they are classified as terrorist or not, will for the most part go unremarked. Obviously not all men are killers.
Again, you’ve got a longest – long – short format. This time, the list is on the other side of the verb “will be”. We have an added-in bit in “though”, and four things that won’t happen despite the problem.
The second sentence in that has a long embedded bit.
And we finish with a simple sentence to state his view clearly.
Can you see something else at work across David Mitchell and Gary Younge? They’re using embedded clauses to interject their views or an extra detail.
Let’s take a look at a different writer, and how they’re using sentence forms for effect in their non-fiction non-narrative writing…
This time it’s the turn of scientist Robert Sapolsky, from his book Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst.
We have our strategy in place. A behaviour has occurred – one that is reprehensible, or wonderful, or floating ambiguously in between. What occurred in the prior second that triggered the behaviour? This is the province of the nervous system. What occurred in the prior seconds to minutes that triggered the nervous system to produce that behaviour? That is the world of sensory stimuli, much of it sensed unconsciously.
So we star with a simple sentence. Short and pithy. Unlike Mitchell and Younge, Sapolsky starts his paragraph with it. And then we get longer with a complex sentence which has three components to explain the behaviour – bad, good or middling – and then a question. That’s answered simply with a simple sentence.
What I really like follows. Can you see the pattern? His second question starts in the same way his first did. He’s using repetition and tying in bits from the first qustion to the second, and the answer to the second question.
What occurred in the prior second that triggered the behaviour? This is the province of the nervous system. What occurred in the prior seconds to minutes that triggered the nervous system to produce that behaviour? That is the world of sensory stimuli, much of it sensed unconsciously.
What I particularly like – and how clever is this from a scientist no less? – is the way he goes from ‘province’ (a small administrative division within a country) to ‘world’ which shows how miniscule the root cause of the nervous system is compared to the ‘world’ of sensory stimuli.
You’ve also got patterning with ‘this’ and ‘that’.
So he’s not just using a range of sentence forms to explain his ideas, he’s using cohesive devices to link and build his ideas too.
Think how dull it would be if he wrote like this:
Behaviour is caused by the nervous system. This is in turn caused by sensory stimuli, much of which is sensed unconsciously.
So why is Sapolsky writing like this?
Because he wants to sell a book to the masses. Popular science is a hit seller if the tone is right. But you’ve got to make sure it’s easy to understand and – more importantly – that it’s engaging. Plus, he’s an engaging kind of a guy. He’s passionate about neuroscience and about behaviour, and he is one of those exceptional few who seems to want to share the wonders of his specialism with the people around him.
Let’s compare that with the opening of a book by equally brilliant neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp:
This book takes us on an archaeological dig deep into the recesses of the mammalian brain, to the ancestral sources of our emotional minds. To the best of our knowledge, the basic biological values of all mammalian brains were built upon the same basic plan, laid out in consciousness-crafting affective circuits that are concentrated in sub-cortical regions, far below the neocortical “thinking cap” that is so highly developed in humans
Not to do Panksepp a disservice, he does go on to use a simple sentence. But then he didn’t write The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion with the same audience in mind. And much of the complexity of that opening is related to the vocabulary as well.
Let’s take a final look at Beyond Words: What Animals Think And Feel by Carl Safina. Obviously it is compulsory for Pop Science writers to use a colon in their title. Or, it is a compulsion for me to pick up Pop Science books with a colon in the title. That’s by the by. This is the opening of his chapter about elephants.
Finally I saw that the very land itself had risen, that the sunbaked land had taken form as something vast and alive and was in motion. The land walked as multitudes, their strides so utterly of the earth that they seemed the source of the very dust. The cloud they raised engulfed us, seeped into every pore, coated our teeth, sifted into our minds. Both flesh and metaphor. That big.
Interesting. He’s got that final shortening just as Mitchell and Younge had. I like the way he has that (compound-complex?) sentence at the beginning for the sense of movement – just as fiction writers do. I particularly like his ‘vast AND alive AND was in motion’. Who says you can’t use two ands in a list? Then a complex sentence to follow. Following that, the lovely sentence with the four verbs, “engulfed… seeped… coated… sifted…” and then two fragments to finish off.
So you can see that the interplay – the ‘poetry’, if you will – of sentence forms, is as useful to science writers, to ethologists and neuroscientists, as it is to fiction writers about blokes punching other blokes so hard that they kill them. They use the same features, the same embedded clauses, the same additional details, the same structures. And they too build to conclusions. They go simple for the simple bits.
Clever, I’m sure you’ll agree.
But it’s the purposeful quality of this that is important. These aren’t writers thinking, “Okay… I have to use a simple sentence, a compound sentence, a fragment and a complex sentence. I should start with a rhetorical question.”
They’re thinking of their ideas and then deciding which sentence is the best vehicle for the idea.
Simple ideas in simple sentences.
Complex ideas in compound or complex sentences.
Multiple causes in sentences with compound subjects.
Action in sentences with multiple strings of verbs.
When you get down and you start rooting underneath the bonnet of people’s writing, you start seeing the mechanical bits at work. And that can be as awe-inspiring as seeing elephants rising up out of the African savannah or watching neurons firing.
Where does that take us if we’re a GCSE student?
If you’re aiming for a good Level 3, you will be using some of the same features ‘for effect’, and if you’re level 4, you’re doing it with the same purposeful and appropriate effects as Mitchell, Younge, Sapolsky and Safina.
So, to recap:
- You have a variety of sentence forms that you can choose from. They’re not a checklist – they’re a toolkit.
- Think about the type of sentence you’re going to use before you commit pen to paper.
- Think of overall shifts and patterns. Just because it’s not poetry doesn’t mean you can do away with language patterns. Even simple things like sentence length can help.
- If it’s the main bit of your message, use a simple sentence. Double the effect by using a high ratio of monosyllabic words. Triple the effect by making it the first or last sentence of a paragraph.
- Don’t use one-word fragments in paragraphs on their own. It’s like a punch in the face.
- If you are trying to make something seem like it’s got lots of aspects and is very complex, compound subject lists are lovely.
- Don’t overlook strings of questions.
- Slow down and don’t let your writing just spill out. Sure, we get carried away with ideas. Sure, we forget punctuation and demarcation. Write less, but write better. Control your thoughts as they emerge and think about what sentence is best suited to convey your ideas. If you’re aiming for Level 3, you’ll be doing that five or six times across the writing section – at least. And if you’re aiming for Level 4, I want to see you really crafting those sentences!
Next time, I’m going to start looking at genre on Paper 2, and how you can use the stylistic conventions of letters to establish the right register for your reader.