Using sentence forms effectively on AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2

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”?

  1. The widely reported terrorist threat.
  2. The stories of near misses.
  3. The stories of “heightened terror alerts”
  4. 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.

GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: Sentence Forms Part II

In the last post, I spent a while exploring all the different types and forms of sentence that you have available to you when you write.

To recap,

  • 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.

And if you are unsure what they all look like, you might want to take a trip back to the previous post, where I’ve provided examples and explained what they are. To be frank, it’s a rather constrained caper – less a fragrant romp than a smash-and-grab. But I appreciate not everyone has the stomach for a more exhaustive exploration of the peculiarities of English sentence construction… and so we move on today into exploration of how writers can use them.

I’m going to be looking mainly at a passage of narrative from best-selling author Lee Child and a piece of purplesque description from Angela Carter to explore sentence forms for effect in narrative and descriptive writing. Next time I’ll look at a bit of opinion from David Mitchell so you can see how sentences for effect work on Paper 2. Between them, you’ll see how writers are using a range of sentence forms for effect…

You know me well enough by now to know that I start with identification, and you can find that in the videos below.

Then some discussion.

And then a little application.

First is an identification of what type of sentences Lee Child uses in an extract from one of his action novels. You can explore the passage with me here:

To summarise, if you can’t be bothered to watch, he uses lots and lots of fragments, a lot of short sentences and the occasional ‘slow-motion’ complex or compound sentence where he breaks all the rules to really slow the action down and break it into pieces whilst at the same time giving it a sense of continuity.

One of my favourite fragments has to be this one:

You can tell I love it because I do a silly voice.

Technically, you don’t really want a full stop. Alone in the dark describes how he waited – it’s a complement of the verb. Alone is actually a way to describe ‘he’, so you have an adjective and then an adverbial that completes it, where he was, ‘in the dark.’

But if I’d seen it written, “Then he waited alone in the dark.” or “Then he waited in the dark”, or with a comma after waited, then he would have a complete sentence.

So why that full stop? Why that fragment?

It just builds up the drama. It makes you focus on that word Alone because it’s now after a pause. It just has the effect of highlighting that fragment, drawing attention to the content and reminding us that Reacher is a one-man army. The pauses before the paragraph and after the paragraph – all that empty space – adds emphasis to those two sentences. And then the full stop adds a break so that you’re really having to emphasise Alone.

The sentence that follows is also pretty cool. Seven actions – three complete and four participles…

Perez stepped into the night, turned to close the door behind him and Reacher swung, arms extended, hips twisting, driving forward off the back foot

You might ordinarily think that a long sentence slows things down and detracts from the tension. Whilst this slows things down and we get the minutiae of movement, that one sentence has seven actions in it. The fact that they are not separated by full stops makes them continuous. All that detail has the effect of going into slow motion so that we get a sense of a lot happening in a short moment. At the same time, by giving us all the details and all the movement, we are delayed from knowing whether or not he was successful.

The short sentence fragments that follow tell us that he wasn’t.

No Good. Late. 

He’s really playing around with the momentum, speeding us up one moment, slowing us down with a baseball metaphor. We have pairs of simple sentences started off by coordinating conjunctions:

But Perez’s head was not a baseball. And the G36 was not a bat. 

Before he takes us into the graphic compound sentence:

The sight block caught Perez in the temple and punched a shard of bone sideways through his left eye socket and on through the bridge of his nose and halfway through his right eye socket.

So why a compound sentence here, and why all those ands?

Firstly, compound sentences are long – and without punctuation, to use a cheesy cliché, they flow. There is a sense of unbroken movement. And that’s what this is describing. An unbroken movement. Although the actions ‘caught’ and ‘punched’ are chronological, by using a compound sentence, there is a sense that the ideas are equal too. It’s slow. It allows us to go slow-motion again and imagine the path that the shard of bone took. Were we of an unnecessarily violent disposition, we may savour that moment and appreciate those graphic details. It also has the added effect of not letting us know whether that stopped Perez or not. We’re still waiting to know what happened next.

In fact, Lee Child dedicates a full NINE sentences to that ONE blow. That’s a lot of detail for one action. We have a metaphor about baseball. We have a simile rooted in speculation about a soft-boiled egg.

That one hit with an assault rifle is evaluated in more detail than you’d probably expect, before we reach the conclusion:

Messy but effective. Perez was dead long before …

and I don’t even care what happens after we’re told the conclusion.

So why get that nine-ways-from-Sunday description and those compound sentences, that detail, the brutal figurative language?

Because otherwise it would read like this:

Reacher moved to the building. He could hear Perez inside on the telephone. Reacher waited. When Perez came out, Reacher hit him with the assault rifle. Perez died instantly. 

Not very exciting, suspenseful or interesting, is it?

But it’s the interplay between all those fragments that makes it interesting. It’s the use of that long compound sentence with that list of actions, the compound sentence that describes the impact of the blow, the parallel simple sentences… and barely a complex sentence at all.

That works beautifully for the action bit of your narrative.

I’m a big fan of using interplay between simple sentences, fragments and compound sentences in action writing. The compound sentence in particular is a nice way to make a lot seem like it happens in unbroken continuity. Fragments and simple sentences speed us up through the rollercoaster of action and increase tension.

They are definitely things you can use yourself.

As for the Angela Carter example… it is the opposite end of the spectrum. Fancy-schmanzy vocabulary, airy-fairy semi-colons. Poetic diction in purple prose. It’s too rich and elaborate for everyday use, but she’s playing with those sentences too.

So… what do we have here?

I’m not even going to get into categorising these sentences!

The first bit is fine. I can manage that. Up to the semi-colon, we have a simple sentence, and the semi-colon makes it into a compound sentence. The ‘but’ suggests an extension of that compound sentence. So three simple sentences spliced together with the embedded ‘not quite yet’ stuck in there.

Now the stark elders have an anorexic look.
There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile. 

Oh, okay. Already I have a problem. We have a main verb ‘is’. And then some other bits with verbs, one of which is clearly an infinitive and doesn’t count. And one, ‘smile’, which is another infinitive? Waaaaah. If they are both infinitives it could still be a simple sentence.

Now the stark elders have an anorexic look.
There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile.
It is not yet the saddest time of the year.
Plus the embedded bit *not quite yet*

That suggests then that there are three simple sentences spliced into one compound sentence. One of the splicey things is a semi-colon. One is a FANBOYS.

Now the stark elders have an anorexic look; there is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile, but it is not yet the saddest time of the year.

And then when I put that embedded bit back in, I’ve got my full sentence.

Let’s say compound it is then. Happy to take your sentence parsing in the comments and amend, by the way, if you are a better linguist than I am. Or if you are braver than I.

The next sentence is ALSO a compound sentence with a tacked-on ‘only’ and another embedded addition.

There is a haunting sense of the imminent cessation of being.
The year turns in on itself. 

Phew. A little easier. You can see the simple sentences here.

And then a verbless fragment to finish it off.

Introspective weather. A sickroom hush. 

The main thing is that she’s using these compound sentences in the same way as Lee Child is. Yes, really. They stretch out that moment and extend the idea. They slow things down and add detail. She’s using the embedded bits and stick-on words to slow it further. The final fragment changes the pace a little.

Think of it if she’d written it like this:

Now the stark elders have an anorexic look. There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile. It is not yet the saddest time of the year. There is a haunting sense of the imminent cessation of being. The year turns in on itself. It is introspective weather. There is a sickroom hush. 

That fancy vocabulary allows it to seem more lovely than it is. Let me make it more simple:

The trees look thin. There is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile. It is not yet the saddest time of the year. There is a sense that everything is ending. The year turns in on itself. It is thoughtful weather. It is as quiet as a sickroom. 

NOW we can really see what’s going on. See how average it sounds without some of that flash ‘imminent cessation of being’ (don’t get caught up on fancy-schmanzy, though… no jubilant adulations, please!)

So how does she take it from these decidedly average seven sentences?

First, she uses two semi-colons. Not to be rude, Ms Carter, you being a published writer and all, but personally I find two semi-colons in two adjacent sentences a bit rich for my taste, but it just goes to show that you can do what you like. I wouldn’t, but then that’s me.

She doesn’t just use the airy-fairy. No. She also has a simple FANBOYS. But.

She sticks on a word, ‘only’.

She adds a couple of embedded details in ‘in turning’ and ‘not quite yet’. That ‘not quite yet’ makes up for the semi-colon abuse use. I do love a little purposeful play with almost-quite repetition, especially when it slows things down so thoughtfully.

Then there is a gloss of lovely words, of course, but even without them, you can see how she’s using sentences to control the pace.

The trees look thin; there is not much in the autumn wood to make you smile, but it is not yet, not quite yet, the saddest time of the year. There is a sense that everything is ending; the year, in turning, turns in on itself. Thoughtful weather, a sickroom hush. 

Not quite so fancy when you get down to it, is it?

So… some stuff for you to try:

  • Use the heck out of those simple sentences. Get your money’s worth. They are very overlooked as a great way to shift the pace and speed things up in narrative or to change the pace in descriptive writing.
  • Add some fragments but please don’t put them in a single-word paragraph. They look ugly and it’s the writing equivalent of punching me in the face. Single-word fragments look fabulous at the beginning of a paragraph, add spice in the middle and add a bump on their own, but if I see another ‘Silence.’ floating on its own in space, I’m going to end up bursting my innards with angry frustration. They are dramatic enough without floating in space, dangling between paragraphs. Soften them a little, please.
  • Don’t overlook the compound sentence. Just because those FANBOYS seem to be things you’ve been using forever, it doesn’t mean you should ignore them.
  • Variety is the spice of life, but be purposeful. DECIDE what sentence length or type you are going to use before you put pen to paper. Stop at the full stops, lift your pen and make a decision before you venture forth into the next.
  • Don’t play before you’ve got the basics right. If you regularly put commas in where full stops should go, it’s like getting out the machine tools when you can’t use a spanner. Put them away and be comfortable with the basics.

And just because I can’t resist, I’m going to leave you with two more beautiful passages of description. One is from Bleak House and it is my most favourite set of sentences of all. The other is from The Great Gatsby. 

That one is from Dickens’ Bleak House. How you use sentences to make the fog seem like it’s everywhere. We’re not all Dickens, but we can learn from his style.

Now those sentences are pretty special, but they’re ways in which candidates looking to move up to the top levels might want to think about how to play around with their sentences.

Next time, I’ll be looking at how you can use a wide range of sentence forms for Paper 2 writing.

GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: sentence forms

Have you ever tried to use a range of sentence forms in your writing?

I have.

Let me tell you a story about a pair of tired old teachers who were knee-deep in exam papers. Some wag had decided to teach all their students to use the words of the question in the form of a question to start off their answer. Well, I guess that was what happened – I’m sure it had come from a place of wisdom rather than being an urban myth about how to pass GCSE that spread like wildfire among teenagers. Paper after paper came back with:

Have you ever been homeless?

Have you ever tried to organise an event for homeless people?

Have you ever thought about attending an event for homeless people?

And the likes.

It wouldn’t have been so bad except for the fact that every single one of those questions was answered.

Have you ever been homeless? I have.

Have you ever tried to organise an event for homeless people? I have.

Have you ever thought about attending an event for homeless people? I have.

After about five, let’s just say that it became a kind of weird, cruel and unusual punishment.  I can’t see a question like this and not think of my friend reading them out in a quasi-serious way every time she stumbled across them.

It’s one reason I find myself longing for stories and descriptions on Paper 1.

But they crop up there too!

Have you ever been on a bus journey through a city? I have.

Have you ever met someone completely different from you? …

Have you ever made an unusual discovery?

Have you ever sat at the foot of the mountains and pondered the meaning of life?

Why then, dear readers, has this hideous trope become quite so ubiquitous for GCSE students?

I suspect it hinges on two things: the accidental attempts of students to use DAFOREST (or any other mnemonic of rhetorical devices) in inappropriate and clumsy ways, and the misguided attempts of students to use a range of sentence forms.

After all, that is what the mark scheme asks for:

Let’s see…

Level 1 is roughly Grades 1-3. That asks for a simple range. That’s three different types of sentence, right? Two is not a range. But three is.

Level 2 is roughly Grades 3-5. That asks for an attempt to vary sentence forms. That means there is some conscious attempt to use different types of sentence. A reader can see attempts to make variety. I might see a simple sentence for effect, for example, or a question.

Level 3 is roughly Grades 5-7. That asks for a variety for effect. So by these grades, they are working and there is some understanding of how you can use sentence forms to affect the reader. That’s moving beyond the occasional, and it’s using longer sentences for effect as well, not just the easier stuff.

By Level 4, roughly Grades 7-9, there is a full range of appropriate sentence forms for effect. Seems clear. A full range is using an extensive variety. Appropriately means using them right.

So why do students go with that hideous ‘have you ever …. blah blah’ nonsense?

A direct address and a question seem to hit both linguistic features (for content and organisation) and range of sentences (for technical accuracy).

I’d like to draw your attention to a curious little word for Level 3 (so roughly grades 5-7) writing: APPROPRIATE. It crops up at level 4 for technical accuracy too.

Linguistic devices should be appropriate. Sentence use should be too.

I’d largely argue that the horrible direct address at the beginning of a story or description was conscious (upper level 2 – Grade 4ish) rather than appropriate (lower level 3 – Grade 5ish). And for technical accuracy, you need to be appropriate to move into Level 4.

But, my dears, if I take that nasty little ‘have you ever’ feature away from you, where does that leave us?

What even is a ‘simple range’ or a ‘full range’ of sentence forms? What even are the forms available to us when we write.

For once, I am grateful for my time in French primary schools. They are obsessed by types and forms of sentences. Obsessed. I mean they teach it over and over. It makes little difference to the nine-year-old students, but it left an indelible mark in my mind.

What are sentence types?

As a general rule, there are five. I started with three, and then I said ‘But Emma, what about… ‘ and so the list grew. Some will say three. Some will say four. I think I can find you at least five.

I’m not sure it’s a definitive list, but it’s a list nonetheless.

The first are simple sentences. My French colleagues teach that this is a sentence with one verb and one subject.

He ran.

The verb being ran and the subject being the subjective pronoun he.

The subject could also be a noun, a nominal group/noun phrase, a proper noun, an infinitive or implied – as well as lots of other things:

He ran. (subjective pronoun)
Daniel ran. (Proper noun)
A wave of irrational terror ran through the boy. (Nominal group or noun phrase)
The cat ran. (Determiner & noun)
To run is the greatest pleasure a boy can have. (An infinitive)
Run! (Implied)

But in all cases, there’s one verb and one subject (who or what did the verb).

Just as a point of interest, the simple sentence is vastly underused. A mastery of the simple sentence for effect is very much an example of higher-level writing. When you know how useful they are for expressing simple ideas, for speeding up text, for adding drama, for making your point clear, then you realise how very useful they can be. There is a messy ground where sentences may have one subject with two verbs (John dodged and feinted), or two subjects with one verb (John and Barry ran), and they fall into some other realm. Technically, since they have an ‘and’, they’re a kind of compressed compound sentence for the French. See below!

After this, we have the compound sentence, which I discussed in my post about the semi-colon. A compound sentence is joined by a FANBOYS (co-ordinating conjunction) and it splices two (or more) simple sentences together. You may find semi-colons, colons, ellipsis or dashes doing a happy job of replacing the co-ordinating conjunction, but you’ve still got at least two verbs and at least two subjects.

The monster rose up behind him. John ran.

Two verbs. Two subjects. Two simple sentences.

The monster rose up behind him, so John ran.

There are lots of accidental compound sentences permeating the work of Grade 2 – 5 students – the hideous run-on sentence which should have full stops, commas and the likes, but do not. Spliced by FANBOYS. Sounds like a terrible horror movie. I went to the shop and I bought a book about grammar and then I picked up some pencils so I could write a letter to my mum. Or even those sentences that are spliced by commas. I went to the shop, I bought a book about grammar, then I picked up some pencils so I could write a letter to my mum. When I see these accidental compound sentences, I am not thinking about Level 3. It goes back to punctuation use and demarcation, but someone who writes using commas instead of full stops, or uses too many FANBOYS, is not someone who understands what sentences are or even what they do.

Then you get the complex sentence, which has a main clause (kind of like a simple sentence) and then a subordinate clause (which doesn’t make sense without the other bit and depends on it) which is worthy of a lesson or two all on its own.

Although I like savouries, I prefer sweets.
Despite the persistent rain, we went out for lunch anyway.
I wrote endlessly about sentence types because I was bored of living.

You can do playful things with those subordinate clauses, of course. You can stick them at the front of the sentence, or you can embed them but you should never leave them dangling.

The fourth type of sentence is not wholly appreciated by all, although I love them. The sentence fragment. A sentence fragment usually has the verb missing or the subject missing. Or both.

The sentence fragment. (No verb)
Or both. (No verb)
Silence! (No verb or subject)
Congratulations! (No verb or subject)
Outside! (No verb or subject)
Weird! (No verb or subject)

Sentence fragments are used accidentally by students at the lower grades, and purposefully by those striving for the top. How that works is that round about Level 2 and 3, I’ve got a loose expectation that you have a growing competence with compound and complex sentences. By the top of Level 3 and into Level 4 (let’s talk Grade 6-9 then) I’ve got an expectation that you’ll be using simple sentences and fragments much more purposefully and efficiently. That makes it easier on you because – hooray! – you don’t have to master the harder stuff to get to the better marks. Indeed, better scripts may certainly have more simple sentences and fragments than you might be expecting.

Sounds kind of counter-intuitive doesn’t it? Do simpler stuff more and get better marks?

I’ll talk about that balance later.

So you’re anxiously waiting to hear what the final two sentences forms in my repertoire are… let’s talk about compound-complex and complex-compound

By the way, if you refer to these on Question 2 or 3 of paper 1, I’d like to remind you that a) most of the time students write ‘compound-complex sentences’ they have little idea of what that actually means, and 100% of the time I’ve seen this it has a) NOT been a compound-complex sentence and b) Had no relevance for answering Question 2 or 3 and was utterly unhelpful.

But, just to be brave, let’s talk compound-complex. This, logically, is one (or more) compound sentences where one of the clauses is dependent on another clause. The sentence that follows is – perhaps – a compound-complex sentence.

My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbors because she had brought me up “by hand.”

This is such a delight. Let’s look at the clauses…

I’ve taken out that little embedded name so that it’s a little less unwieldy.

I’ve put a full stop in and replaced the omitted subject. What you can see is that we have three sentences with three verbs. The last verb, ‘had brought’ is dependent on the ‘had established a great reputation’ because of the subordinating conjunction ‘because’.

If you’re still with me.

You can see then when the bits get put back in that there is one compound sentence, and one of those bits of the compound sentence is a complex sentence.

My brain ached and my eyes bled even though I thought it all made sense. 

Arguably, then, you may also find complex-compound sentences, which would be two or more complex sentences spliced together as a compound sentence with a FANBOYS.

I guess.

Although I had a good understanding of grammar, the complex-compound sentence foxed me completely, and I found myself in a bewildering minefield even though I had been teaching more years than I cared to confess, . 

Is that compound-complex, or complex-compound? Is there even a complex-compound? Does that even exist?!

Wait though. Does that mean you could have complex-complex sentences? Oh dear.

Luckily, though, it is not these ridiculous grammatical convolutions that will secure you the best marks, since it is all about what you do with those sentences.

Those are the forms of sentences.

That’s one way to get a ‘range of sentences’.

There are also types of sentence.

There are definitely four of those, and no quibbling.


I hate sentences.


Are you still with me?




Let’s leave them well enough alone. 

You could, I guess, also include affirmative and negative versions of these.

Negative declarative.

I don’t think there is anything left to say. 

Negative interrogative.

Haven’t you got anything better to do? 

Negative exclamative

I haven’t any examples!

Negative imperative

Don’t move! 

So there you have it… a bunch of different ways that you can use a range of sentences beyond the ‘have you ever had a brain aneurysm when trying to use different sentences? I have’ approach.

Just to summarise, these are the tools you have at your disposition:

  • 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.

The trick is how you use this glorious grammatical toolbox… but that is a topic for another day.

In the next post, I’ll be looking at how you can best use these sentences in Paper 1 and Paper 2 to gain maximum control, exploring how writers use this full range for specific effect.

GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: semi-colons

The post today is going to explore my most favourite of the misunderstood punctuation marks: the semi-colon. If ever a punctuation mark needed someone to champion its cause, it is the humble semi-colon, so often abused, so little understood. And if ever an English teacher liked to jump on a cause, I am that English teacher, championing the underdog. You may, by the way, want to call it a semicolon (but I think that looks ugly) or a semi colon (which I think looks like it’s in danger of drifting away from each other … semi    colon …. semi               colon …) and so I have hyphenated it because, well, I can. That, my lovely readers, is why punctuation is so flipping fun and so very individual. As long as you pick one version and stick to your guns, you are on safe ground. You might prefer semi colon or semicolon; that’s your prerogative. You know already my love of the hyphen.

I’ve written before about the semi-colon and you may find that post helpful at elucidating the numerous reasons why I love this dainty little marriage of a punctuation mark. So far, I’ve looked at how you can use hyphens and colons to help improve your technical accuracy mark, and the semi-colon completes the unholy trinity of trouble-makers.

In essence, whilst students may dash to use a colon, stuffing in lists hither and thither, they tend to leave semi-colons well enough alone.

I don’t know why that is.

Can you use the word ‘and’ to join two sentences together?

If you can do that, you can use a semi-colon.

So what do you need to know about the semi-colon?

First and foremost, it functions as a coordinating conjunction. That may well be meaningless to you. If I ask you if you know the word ‘and’, however, you’re sure to nod. If you know where the word ‘and’ goes, you are on the way to understanding the function of the semi-colon.

Coordinating conjunctions, then…

What those bad FANBOYS do is connect simple sentences of equal merit, weight or rank. The FANBOYS, by the way, are: for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so. They join two simple sentences together to form a compound sentence.

You know simple sentences, I know. One verb and one subject.

Remember, find the verb first.

Sometimes that’s tough when they’re little auxiliary verbs like am, is, are, was, were and so on.

When you’ve found the verb, ask yourself ‘who or what [insert verb here]?’

Who or what was?

It was.

The passage continues with another simple sentence. One verb, had been, the pluperfect of ‘to be’, if you are of an enquiring mind. Who or what had been? School had been. 

When you stick two simple sentences together, you have a variety of ways to do it. One is with a FANBOYS.

Here, writer Betsy Byers has used the conjunction and – that most popular of FANBOYS.

Now, you’ll notice she’s used a comma before the coordinating conjunction. You may well have been taught that you don’t use a comma before the word and. And you don’t, if you’re British and you are writing a list. Or if the second bit relies on the first.

Comma headache.

This is why I hate the little beggars.

Can you see why?

Why, for instance, would it have been weird to write:

And you don’t, if you’re British, and you are writing a list.

An explanation for another time, I’m sure.

Anyway, back to the and.

Because a semi-colon is used to join two separate clauses (that means they could be sentences on their own if you replaced the , and with a full stop as they were earlier) you can use it wherever you’d use a , and. So Betsy Byars could have written:

I do, in fact, prefer the , and version to be honest. Just because you can use a semi-colon doesn’t mean you should. I think the semi-colon makes it sound more abrupt whereas the comma-and makes it sound more slow. That’s just my explanation. It sounds more natural with the and.

But you could use a semi-colon and it wouldn’t be wrong.

You can, of course, use and to join together two complex sentences. You can, of course, use them to join more than two simple or complex sentences, but that is where your head will start to implode and that really is to be avoided.

What does a semi-colon do that and does not?

First, it avoid repeating the word and. I mean, we get through a lot of those when we write. There are times when it’s purposeful or unavoidable, like if we’re writing a list or we want to make that list drag on.

One example comes from the David Mitchell article in The Guardian that I was using as an example of colon use:

There are two types of cosmetics, in my analysis. Lipstick and mascara. Oh, and blusher. Hang on: and powder and eyeliner and moisturiser and perfume and hairspray. Blimey, there are loads. And styling mousse and hair dye and spray tan and unnecessary surgery.

Why then does he use all of these ands? Surely he knows how to write more properly than this? That gives me a clue. It’s for effect. He wants those ands there. They act as little exaggerators that separate out all those types of cosmetics. They heap ridicule on his first assertion that there are only two types of cosmetics. They add to his feeling of astonishment that “there are loads”.

That is a time that I want an and. Also it’s a list, and you can’t have semi-colons in this type of list. It would be weird and ugly.

He does, by the way, include two semi-colons in this article. You can look for them if you are that way inclined. I’ll give you a clue: he’s using them properly in a list.

So where DO you use a semi-colon and where would it be appropriate to replace a FANBOYS?

It’s appropriate where you don’t want to imply an order or priority to the ideas. For instance where you are giving equally important facts. In a story, it’s loosely chronological so an idea can’t get upset just because it comes after another one. No offence to the other ideas that follow, it’s just how things happened.

Now let’s take non-fiction and non-chronological writing.

If I write:

The full stop marks the end of a completed thought. The semi-colon marks a continuation. 

The idea that comes second is quite literally second best. When we order our ideas in non-narrative writing, we choose a sequence or priority. The first one to show up is the most important, simply because it got there first. Unless we signal that our second, third or fourth ideas are the most important, through discourse markers such as more importantly, then the second-best idea may get hurt feelings if you put them second.

You’re laughing of course. You have never had to write an article about local florists that ended up causing a war.

Hearts and Flowers, based in Edenfield, provide bespoke wedding centrepieces and bouquets. Magnificent Blooms in Haslingdon cater for large events and are happy to provide aisle decorations, pedestals and even wedding arches. 

Can you see how going second might not make my fictional ‘Magnificent Blooms’ quite so happy? You think I’m joking, but you’ve never had to face a 40-minute tirade from an irate business who really didn’t want to find themselves second.

A semi-colon stops some of that aggravation. It says, quite simply: THESE THINGS ARE EQUAL.

So for that reason, if you are trying to show that the idea following is only there because one of them has to come second, but that doesn’t imply that it is of lesser importance, the semi-colon is what you are looking for.

Semi-colons are great little pivots that provide balance and equilibrium in a sentence:

‘Storm on the Island’, written by Seamus Heaney, explores the power of nature in a land torn apart by unmentioned civil unrest; ‘Exposure’ by Wilfred Owen makes more direct reference to the backdrop of war but focuses on the soldiers’ battle against an all-powerful Nature which seems intent on killing them all. 

A semi-colon tells your reader that you are comparing or contrasting ideas.

So how do you use them safely?

Firstly, you need to make sure that what you have on both sides is a full sentence. There are exceptions to this, but you need to work with stabilisers on for a bit before you ride solo.

Secondly, it can always be replaced by a full stop.

Thirdly, you should be able to replace it with an ‘and’. Or a ‘but’. Or any of the other FANBOYS

So if you abide by those three simple rules, you should be safe. Remember that the semi-colon replaces the FANBOYs: you don’t need both.

You also need to remember not to over-use them

A colon directs you only one way – forward, into an explanation or embellishment. A semi-colon can direct you in any number of ways: a comparison, a contrast, a balance, a pivot, a twist or two (or more) parts of a single idea. Semi-colons imply a close relation between ideas, which a full stop does not. A full stop is a divorce of ideas; a semi-colon is a marriage of them.

You can also use them before discourse markers such as however, nevertheless, also, consequently, therefore and so on – as long as there are two full sentences on either side.

I tried the beef and onions, as you suggested; however, they disagreed terribly with my digestion.

The film was a tawdry romance with dialogue verging on saccharine at points; nevertheless, I enjoyed it all the same.

I found I could not get on with Thackeray; therefore, I abandoned ‘Vanity Fair’ and took up with Dostoyevsky.

These ‘conjunctive adverbs’ need a semicolon before them in ways that the FANBOYS have a comma before them when they join two independent clauses together. Now there’s a nonsensy tech sentence I never thought to write.

You can find more conjunctive adverbs and some examples here and here

Next time, I go in search of the strategies you can use at GCSE to improve your use of sentences. Make sure you sign up if you want regular emails with these posts.

GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: colons

For the last few posts I’ve been hop-scotching through the playground that makes up punctuation, focusing on a couple of marks that are generally misunderstood and much maligned. The hyphen is one of them; the semi-colon is another. The third in this trifecta of oft-abused punctuation marks is the colon.

I’m going to out-and-out ban the one way you’ve been guaranteed to have been taught it: lists. If I see a list on a Paper 1 description or narrative, dollars to doughnuts it has been completely forced with the express purpose of putting in a colon. No lists on Paper 1, please. Whether you want to stick one in (appropriately) in a bullet-point list on Paper 2 for an article or a leaflet, that’s your call. I wouldn’t unless I intended to write a list, but it’s not so ugly and out of place there.

To be honest, a colon doesn’t come naturally on Paper 1, perhaps. That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t use it, just that it lends itself perfectly to Paper 2.

It comes down to this: what is the purpose of a colon?

Not the one in your body. We all know what the purpose of that is.

But the punctuation one. You know. That weird full stop on top of another full stop.

Its purpose is to explain. To expand. To add details or development. And what do you need to do on Paper 2? Explain. Expand. Add detail and development.

Explanation and colons go hand in hand.

I’m really only going to focus on that one role of a colon: it does other things too, like introducing lists of course, and introducing a longer quotation, helping you define ratios in Maths or introducing the sub-title of a book. They’re not things that you’ll be doing frequently on either Paper 1  or Paper 2.

That is practically all a colon does for how you will need to know it: it explains, embellishes, adds detail or development.

It is a signpost that says: ‘Hold your horses, Oh Confused Reader – an explanation will follow!’

It’s a little mark that says: “Bear with me, dear reader, and I will explain…”

It is a pointy finger that says, “Reader, I know you are looking to locate the explanation… it is just here!”

I’m taking my examples from today’s newspaper opinion columns.

First up is a colon in a headline from Sandi Toksvig.

You can see how the bit before the colon is a statement and what follows is an explanation. The colon acts as a little way to let us know that she’s going to explain.

And here she’s using one to give examples (in a list) of what ‘every available metric’ means.

Then next up is Polly Toynbee, using a colon to introduce an explanation

Here, she’s using the colon to explain what the other 90% of apprenticeships are.

One from David Mitchell:

Here, you can see the little ‘EXPLANATION AHEAD’ colon, letting you know that what follows is an explanation of what he means by ‘it’s like diabetes’. If you were confused about why make-up (the topic of his article) is like diabetes, the bit after the colon will explain.

Just as an aside, I read three opinion columns and I found multiple examples of colon use in each. If you’re writing your opinion, then a colon is par for the course. In David Mitchell’s 1000-word piece, there are seven colons. Not that this is a ratio to aspire to, just a gauge of how frequent they are. That’s roughly one every 150 words. 1:150. Who said you won’t use ratios in an explanation essay?! There are two semi-colons and 61 full stops. There’s another ratio. For roughly every 8 full stops, there is a colon.

Just using that one piece of writing as an example, you can probably see that colons are much more frequent than you might suspect them to be.

So what are the rules and what are the pitfalls?

The most important rule – and it won’t always apply, but it does until you’ve absolutely mastered colons in this particular context – is that what goes before is a FULL sentence. That means it has a verb and a subject, if not more. If you could replace it with a full stop, you are on the right lines. But how do you know if you are working with a full sentence.

If you want to find the verb, ask yourself: ‘you must’ and then find a bit that ‘you must’

From our examples above, we’ve got ‘you must do better’, ‘you must remember’. There are also complicated little helper auxiliary verbs like ‘is’ and ‘are’ that we tend to forget.

But from our examples above, there are verbs in each of the bits before the colon.

You will also then be able to find the subject. ‘Who or what must remember’? ‘Who or what must do better’? The answers are ‘you’ and ‘more equal societies’, respectively.

The gender pay gap isn’t the half of it: our economy runs on women’s unpaid work.
The fact is, more equal societies do better on just about every available metric: mental health, general health, crime rate, education and so on.
Only 10% are real apprenticeships attached to work: the rest are classroom-only courses offering no recognised qualification, with no employer willing to take them on.
You can remember it like diabetes: type one is naturally occurring and type two is clearly something you have done to yourself.

Once you have a subject and a verb, you have a full sentence. In that way, one of the tests for a colon is:

Can I replace it with a full stop?

That said, what follows a colon doesn’t always need to be a full sentence. A list isn’t a sentence for example because it often has no verbs. So you would maybe have to tinker with the second bit.

The gender pay gap isn’t the half of it: our economy runs on women’s unpaid work. (2x full sentences)
The fact is, more equal societies do better on just about every available metric: mental health, general health, crime rate, education and so on. (full sentence before the colon but not after – no verb)
Only 10% are real apprenticeships attached to work: the rest are classroom-only courses offering no recognised qualification, with no employer willing to take them on. (2x full sentences)
You can remember it like diabetes: type one is naturally occurring and type two is clearly something you have done to yourself.

As a rule, you can see something start to happen. There are lots of simple sentences before those colons. What happens after can be:

  1. a list;
  2. a simple sentence;
  3. a compound sentence that has two verbs and is joined by a coordinating connective (a fancy way to say the word ‘and’).

So you can replace it with a full stop for the bit before. For the bit after, and the bit before, you can check if you can replace the colon with one of the following:

  • the word ‘namely’
  • the words ‘for example’
  • the phrase ‘what this means is that…’

The gender pay gap isn’t the half of it: what this means is that our economy runs on women’s unpaid work.
The fact is, more equal societies do better on just about every available metric: for example mental health, general health, crime rate, education and so on.
Only 10% are real apprenticeships attached to work: what this means is that the rest are classroom-only courses offering no recognised qualification, with no employer willing to take them on.
You can remember it like diabetes: namely type one is naturally occurring and type two is clearly something you have done to yourself.

And that is perhaps the best way to know if you’ve used it correctly… could I use one of those phrases? The reason it works so well is that these are words that do the same job as the colon. We’re going to find that with semi-colons too: it’s not that they can be replaced by different types of punctuation, but that they can be replaced by a word or phrase.

So, let’s take a brief look at David Mitchell’s other six colons and check if the rules apply…

  1. Is there a verb before the colon (i.e. Is it a full sentence?)
  2. Could you use a full stop if you didn’t worry about the bit after?
  3. Could you introduce the bit after with ‘namely’, ‘for example’ or ‘what this is means is that…’?

Hang on: and powder and eyeliner and moisturiser and perfume and hairspray.

So, the first bit has a verb, ‘hang’. And it’s an imperative – request or command. So that’s fine. I can put a full stop, except the bit on the other side is not a full sentence, but that doesn’t matter as long as the first bit is. The bit after is a list. I could use ‘for example’, because he’s writing about other types of make-up. So, the colon here is introducing a list, an embellishment about all the types of make-up he can think of. The colon is like a little trampoline that springboards him right into that list.

Lipstick is generally type two: a lipsticked person is not usually claiming that’s their natural lip shade.

Is the first bit a full sentence? Yes. It has a verb (it) and you could put a full stop where the colon is. In fact the bit on the other side is also a full sentence too. Could I say “what this means is that” ?? Yes. “Lipstick is generally type two: what this means is that a lipsticked person is not usually claiming that’s their natural lip shade.” 

Another appropriately-used colon.

For the next sentence, it’s much longer:

You’d think perfume was pretty solidly type two: deodorant might be type one, a denial of our inherent BO, but people who smell of perfume or aftershave aren’t seriously claiming it’s exuded organically.

Is the first bit a full sentence? Yes. It has a verb ‘would think’ and you could put a full stop where the colon is. The second bit is also a full sentence, although we know that matters less. Could I use ‘what this is means is that…’? And yes I could. The colon here is a little signpost explaining why we might think that perfume is ‘type two’ – something we do to ourselves.

The next introduces a quote (which is something you might do on Paper 2, if you are bringing in the experts to support your views):

As Ben Gorham, one of the creators of “Elevator Music”, a minimalist scent launching this month, put it: “The idea is that its wearer is noticed, not the perfume.”

This brings me to another place you may find yourself using the colon: the English Literature paper. You’re going to be doing much more quoting there, too.

So, a different type of colon, marching to the beat of a different drum. But a correct use of a colon, nevertheless.

He has another example with a quote too when he writes about men dyeing their hair:

Yet, somehow, any attempt to make such a change is associated with shame – we’re a world away from bald men openly saying: “Yes, I went bald and I didn’t like how it looked, so now I wear this terrific wig!”

And you can see that little colon introducing a longer quote – another very teachable way to look at colons. In fact, this example also uses a dash where a colon could also have gone, after shame. The bit before is a full sentence. It has a verb. It could be a full stop. What comes after explains what he means when he says it’s shameful for men to dye their hair or wear a wig. So it’d be a perfect place for a colon.

Why doesn’t he use a colon then?

Because David Mitchell is obviously aware of one of my pet peeves: more than one colon-ated sentence in a paragraph. There isn’t a verb to do with using a colon, so I had to make one up. But you know what I mean. Like toppings on ice-cream, you can overdo colons very easily. More than one in a paragraph is pretty much overkill, but two in a sentence is horrible. Seriously. So one of the things to avoid then. If he used a colon instead of the dash, then he couldn’t introduce the quote with a colon. But you can’t really introduce a quote with anything other than a colon (maybe a comma at a push) but you can usually replace a colon with a dash. That got complicated quickly.

Now I’m not planning on doing a post about the humble dash, one of my favourite punctuation marks – but its delightful versatility means I can use it where I was risking colon overkill. Plus, you can get away with more dashes. They don’t have the same meaning or purpose as a colon, but they are good if you find yourself in the tricky situation of needing to use a colon when it’s needed elsewhere in close proximity. At worst, your writing might appear a little disjointed if you go with dash overkill, but it won’t be quite as ugly as colon overkill. Now that really is messy and awkward. A dash may well be less polished and less formal, but it avoids that ugly accident of more than one colon per sentence.

That largely concludes how you can use a colon, especially on Paper 2, where it’s just so in purpose with explaining a viewpoint. It has fewer uses in narrative or description, that’s for sure, but it’s not out of the question that you might have the occasional example.

There was nothing else for it: he’d have to run.

So get busy with your colons: practise and practise until you feel you’ve added them to your repertoire. Steer clear of horrible lists and avoid overkill. A well-placed colon is a delight to the word-weary reader and it will certainly pay dividends when used appropriately.

UP next time, the semi-colon.

GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: hyphens

In the last post, I was looking at punctuation in general, including the requirements for punctuation at GCSE for English Language.

To hit Level 2 or above, you will need to show growing accuracy in a range of punctuation.

At Level 2 (5-8 marks out of 16, roughly up to Grade 4), you will need to show you have some control a range of punctuation.

At Level 3 (9-12 marks out of 16, roughly up to Grade 7), you will need to show you can use a range of punctuation mostly successfully.

And at Level 4 (13-16 marks out of 16, up to the top of Grade 9), you will need to show you can use a wide range of punctuation with a high level of accuracy.

In stories and descriptions, however, you may find that you are hampered by what you are writing. After all, it’s not like stories or descriptions necessarily lend themselves to a wide range of punctuation in the same way that Paper 2 does. Indeed, in the extract I use about sentence forms from best-selling writer Lee Child, there were really only four punctuation marks used over 300 words: full stops, commas, omissive apostrophes and hyphens.

Hyphens are sadly overlooked. They have the power to change meaning completely.

Think about this sentence:

No smoking restrictions are in place

And this one:

No-smoking restrictions are in place

That hyphen has the power to mean that a) you CAN smoke or b) you CAN’T smoke.

Or this sentence:

A government monitoring programme will be set up.

How does it compare to:

A government-monitoring programme will be set up.

Well, in the first, the government are doing the monitoring, and in the second, the government are being monitored.

Hyphens also help with pronunciation.

The football player resigned


The football player re-signed

Again, very different meanings.

A hyphen is word glue. It glues words together or glues on prefixes to change meaning. It glues words together that you don’t want separated, or that you want people to consider to be one single thing.

There aren’t really guides as such, or definitive rules, but there are places where you’d definitely need a hyphen to make meaning clear. My rule is that I’m happy for them to be left out as long as meaning is clear, but it’s a sophisticated writer who thinks to include them where the meaning is clear but the words should be considered together.

Times move on, and words that used to be hyphenated, like tool-box, are no longer hyphenated. In fact, it looks rather quaint. Old-fashioned hyphen use like this is probably not necessary.

You can also use them to split up words if your word is going to drop off the end of the line and you ran out of space because the word was longer than you thought it was. Not their best use, but a use nonetheless. If you ever go into the world of typesetting and printing, you’ll need to know this stuff, but not if you just want a good grade at GCSE.

In terms of pronunciation, you wouldn’t usually use a hyphen unless the sense is confusing. That’s going to happen most where there is a word spelt the same but with a different meaning, like re-signed and resigned. Recreation and re-creation are another pair of examples. You can also use it with double letters such as re-examine, because reexamine looks hideous.

As a general rule of thumb, if you’ve got things before a noun and the first alters the meaning of the second, use a hyphen:

  • a well-read book
  • a little-used cup
  • a well-known brand of coffee
  • a three-year-old boy
  • a much-needed holiday
  • a best-kept secret

But if those adjectives come after the noun, then you don’t need a hyphen.

  • The book was well read
  • The cup was little used
  • The coffee brand was well known
  • The boy was three years old
  • The holiday was much needed
  • The secret was best kept to himself

You also find them in colour blends, like amber-gold, yellow-green, snow-white IF they come before the noun as well, like an amber-gold sunset, but not the sunset shone amber gold. They are quite fabulous for Paper 1 description or descriptive bits in narrative.

Fractions (two-thirds of a mile), times (a half-hour wait) numbers that modify an adjective (a third-floor apartment) also have them. Again, you don’t have them if they come after. The apartment was on the third floor doesn’t need one.

You can see the pattern, can’t you?

If you’ve got an adjective and it’s changed by another adjective, and they come before a noun, you’re going to use a hyphen.

To be honest, at GCSE, I’m just looking for them if you’ve used well, little, much or best before another adjective before a noun. I’m also looking for them if the sense is confusing.

You can see how in this example, panic buy is confusing…

Clearly something is needed to make it clear that they weren’t told ‘Don’t panic! Buy petrol!’ and ‘Don’t panic-buy petrol’ would be clearest. Clearer still would be ‘Don’t buy petrol in a panic’, but since this is a headline, you can see why there is a need for brevity.

Sometimes, a missing hyphen can cause confusion, as you have seen already.

Bernard was having extra marital sex.

Was he having an affair or had his marriage just picked up a notch? Yes, I know what they mean. They don’t mean he was having a lot of hanky-panky with his missus. They mean he was cheating. But if they mean that he was cheating, they really should have put a link in it.

His poodle is a well behaved dog.

Let me get this straight… his dog was well, or it was well behaved? If it was well behaved, it needs a hyphen. If, however, by bizarre and poor English, it was well and behaved, then that’s okay then.

The carriage was followed by six foot men.

So Cinderella had six servant guys or she was followed by an unspecified number of men who were six feet tall? You can, of course say footmen if you mean the kind of guys who follow carriages about in fancy old-fashioned clothing.

He was a rare cheese maker.

So he made rare cheeses or he was a cheesemaker who was rare?

Joyce Carol Oates was a short story writer.

She wrote short stories or she was short and she was a storywriter?

Now you don’t care about my silly examples of very deliberately chosen carelessness with hyphens. But I do care to give you some real-life examples. Without further ado, here are forty examples from the four things I am reading at the moment…

  • real-life version; self-reliant cook; rightward-slanting handwriting; co-authors; an upper-middle-class family; real-estate holdings; pinky-red rare; a bride-to-be’s cooking course; our day-to-day lives; pale-blue airmail paper
  • middle-class; socio-economic; semi-Dutch parentage; grand-daughter; non-Prussian areas of Germany; semi-secret; the one-time editor; far-reaching duties; mid-December; so-called
  • grid-like; deep-red tiles; a worm-eaten chest; ochre-washed farmhouses; bomb-damaged buildings; Burt Lancaster’s over-muscled physique squeezed into a leotard; blood-red poppies; there was nothing run-of-the-mill about the building; long-dead; vice-like
  • one of the world’s best-known figures; high-heeled boots; a bald-faced liar; it’s effort-free; rent-free; self-employed; aimed at eight-to-fifteen-year-old girls; two-thirds of UK children; Seventeenth-century Britain; a series of one-line paragraphs

As you can see, if you turn your similes around and put -like after, you need a hyphen. It’s also good for things where you stick on a -free after a noun. Definitely useful with numbers and colours. Actually when I did this exercise, I found hyphens everywhere – they littered fiction and non-fiction alike. I didn’t have to flick through pages and pages to find them, either.

Not a one of the examples is particularly confusing without a hyphen, but a hyphen helps all the same. Also, since they’re fairly conventional and rule-bound, they’re the kind of thing I like to look for if I’m trying to find a range of punctuation in writing, or if I’m trying to justify a Level 3 for punctuation or above. There is an element of personal style there (wait until we get to semicolon, semi colon and semi-colon) but there are times when it’s much more of a convention, like in old-fashioned or high-heeled than in others like toolbox.

Some further reading:


Grammar Tips

Now get out and get practising!

Up next: colons.



Improving your technical accuracy for AQA GCSE English Question 5

In the last couple of posts, I’ve been looking at how to plan for the descriptive and narrative tasks on AQA’s GCSE English (8700) Paper 1 Question 5.

As you know, there are 40 marks available for Question 5, and 16 of those marks are for technical accuracy.

Today I’m going to walk you through the marks given for punctuation and explain how those work. It’s a little difficult to pull out the punctuation strand on its own, so it will inevitably get bound up with sentence forms and demarcation.

Why I’m focusing on punctuation is that it is one way, along with variety of sentence forms, that you can really shape up your marks. Most secondary-age students have had little revision or discussion of punctuation, with the majority of the work about punctuation being done in primary schools. It’s a shame not to revisit it, because it’s a simply lush way to improve your mark.

It has another bonus, as well.

It doesn’t just pay off for the marks for technical accuracy, but it also pays off for the mark on content and organisation, since how you write is very much about ‘control’ at the top end. It affects how engaging your writing is because it’s one of those things that helps to make your writing interesting and compelling.

There are six strands to the 16 marks for technical accuracy:

  • demarcation of sentences
  • use of punctuation
  • range of sentence forms
  • use of Standard English
  • spelling
  • vocabulary

You can see how the way in which you use vocabulary is a kind of ‘double whammy’ since it is also rated for the 24 marks for content and organisation. However, it is not one of the things that helps me fix a level for technical accuracy. It helps me refine a mark, of course, but it is not the main priority for me when I’m deciding how technically accurate a piece of writing is.

Punctuation and sentence demarcation/variety are the main ways I decide on what level a piece of writing is coming in at.

The other stuff – Standard English, spelling and vocabulary – help me refine my mark within that level.

In other words, punctuation, demarcation and variety help me decide if you’re Level 1 (1-4 marks) or Level 4 (13-16 marks). And then Standard English, spelling and vocabulary help me decide whether you are 1 mark or 4 marks if I’ve decided you’re Level 1, or whether you’re 13 or 16 marks if you’re Level 4. In other words, the most atrocious spelling might stop me from thinking you were at the top of the level, but it wouldn’t make me think your work was very weak and only in Level 1. Spelling is a very superficial skill: easy to identify, hard to categorise and the bane of our lives. I’m still on a journey towards spelling perfection. With a heady mix of weird Latin, old Norse and Germanic throwbacks, we English writers are a little challenged compared to, say, the French or the Spanish. Punctuation and sentence variety don’t give us such a rough ride as spelling does. They’re easier because there are fewer of them.

And in actual fact, as you’ll see from this post and the one that will follow, punctuation can be really easy to improve, as can your sentence variety. I don’t know why more secondary teachers don’t focus on it.

Part of the problem is that students don’t always understand what is easy when it comes to punctuation, and what is challenging. Semi-colons and colons have taken on almost mythical proportions of breath-taking complexity, when in fact they are relatively straightforward and rule-driven. Commas, on the other hand, fox even the best linguistic minds I know. Also, and I HATE this with a passion, so few people now seem to understand semi-colons and colons that they seem to get relegated to writing lists. I would ban colons in lists on Paper 1 completely and utterly. They hurt my eyes and are wrong in ways I can’t even begin to explain.

Punctuation is not only hard because it’s not always taught post-primary, but also because much of it is about personal preference.

Plus, there are things that are 100% right or 100% wrong, like apostrophes and hyphens, and then there are rules that you can choose to live by or choose to ignore, depending on your preferences and even on your nationality. You think I’m kidding? Don’t get me started on the Oxford comma, for instance. The comma that divides the USA from pretty much the rest of the English-writing Punctuation World… that comma could cause wars among proof-readers, I promise.

When it comes to it, punctuation has a brief history and not even that much to learn. Some things, admittedly, have lots of rules and sub-rules and things you can ignore or not depending on your own style, but much of it comes down to you can’t use this here vs you could if you want to. Sometimes you get the occasional you should or you shouldn’t use such-and-such a piece of punctuation, and there are times when you get an absolute you need to.

That’s maybe what makes it all seem so very complicated.

Up until the last 1400 years or so, punctuation was kind of Do-As-You-Please. Text would all run together a bit like this and nobody bothered with spaces:


Then some people started putting stuff in to make it a bit easier, like spaces and even some punctuation which has been relegated to the history books, like the little-known diple. Curious, by the way, that other languages don’t have the same marks we do and don’t always use them in the same way. Punctuation is cool.

It was only with the invention of the printing press and the bringing of reading to the masses that punctuation, like spelling, became more regular out of necessity.

You don’t care about that, I know. You just want to know which marks will get you a Grade 1 and which will get you a Grade 9…

The fact is that the markscheme doesn’t have a hierarchy. I wish it did. It would be so nice.

Full stops = Grade 1
Speech marks = Grade 4
Semi-colons = Grade 6

That would be lovely and easy to mark. It would be lovely and easy to teach.

But the fact is that there is a hierarchy of sorts. A hierarchy of what’s easy and what’s hard. That doesn’t mean you get extra marks for what’s hard or fewer marks for what’s easy. It just means that from your perspective, it’s worth knowing that there are some you can learn quickly and get right 100% of the time because there are clear, comprehensible rules that make sense and apply 100% of the time. It also means that there are some that you’re going to find a challenge because they have about thirty ifs and buts.

But most students have the hierarchy wrong, and don’t understand what they need to do with their punctuation to get into each level.

So here’s what the markscheme says you need to do to get into each level:

Just a reminder… the markscheme talks about levels. It doesn’t talk about grades. Nobody can say “this is Grade 9 punctuation” and don’t believe anything you read that says otherwise. As a rough guide, you may consider Level 1 to be around Grade 1-3, Level 2 to be around Grade 3-5, Level 3 to be around Grade 5-7 and Level 4 to be around Grade 7-9, just to help you know where you are working. But that is just my approximations to give you a bit of a guide and I’m only doing it because I know those levels 1-4 are meaningless to you.

So, what do these mean?

Some evidence of conscious punctuation… let’s talk about that word ‘some’… ‘some’ is not 1. One purposeful full stop at the end is not ‘some’. ‘Some’ might be 2 punctuation marks, but is more likely 3 or more. That means that I’m looking for at least 3 punctuation marks that have been used on purpose. It’s not even really 3 different punctuation marks. It might well be three full stops. That would be some.

What does ‘on purpose’ mean? Well, it doesn’t really mean ‘right’ or ‘correct’, just that they’ve been used deliberately. For example:

Are they any ? old legends attached to the castle asked conrad of his sister conrad was, a prosperous hamburg merchant but he was the one poetically dispositioned member of an eminently. practical family

Can you see how random those punctuation marks are? They’re conscious though… definitely on purpose. The ‘are’ at the beginning suggests a question. You have to think about a question mark in order to stick it in the wrong place. There are three punctuation marks in this answer, and they are a bit accidental, but they are there. This is the kind of punctuation we might see in level 1. Usually, it’s not that random. It’s more like this:

Are they any old legends attached to the castle? asked conrad of his sister, Conrad was a prosperous hamburg merchant but he was the one poetically dispositioned member of an eminently practical family.

What you get at Level 1 are some full stops in the right place and the occasional comma splice. A  comma splice, by the way, is where you use a comma instead of a full stop. Some students use an ‘and’ instead of a comma or a full stop and their sentences are spliced by connectives. Comma splicing is widely, largely indicative of fairly low level of control. Kind of Level 2ish. If I were teaching a class with comma-splicing habits, I would definitely, definitely be trying to weed that nasty habit out. It is, in my opinion, the biggest reason students don’t get more than half marks for technical accuracy.

Another example of the same bit, just punctuated differently:

Are they any old legends attached to the castle, asked conrad of his sister, Conrad was a prosperous hamburg merchant but he was the one poetically dispositioned member of an eminently practical family.

In short, you have to have a vague nod towards the notion of punctuation and sentences to be working at Level 1.

Most students come in at Level 2 or 3.

Level 2 states that you have some control of a range of punctuation. 

So, some is more than 1 out of 3 being right, isn’t it? As a kind of percentage of accuracy, it’s probably around 30% – 50%. It’s more than ‘occasional’, but less than ‘more’. I do so hate these qualitative adjectives. In other words, if you use commas, sometimes, they’re in the right place sometimes.

Now the other word in there that is interesting is ‘range’.

A range is not one type of punctuation. A range is probably not two, either. To be safe, a range is probably three.

In descriptive or narrative, that probably means commas, full stops and apostrophes. I do a lot of work on sentence fragments using a passage from action writer Lee Child, and over the 300 words of the passage, there are commas, full stops, some apostrophes and a couple of hyphens. That in itself is not horrible. I’m sure best-selling writers don’t get their work returned by stroppy editors saying ‘Lee, this is a Level 2. You need a wider range of punctuation.’

On Paper 2, however, you’re going to find it more natural and more easy to use a wider range, but we’ll get to that.

So, in essence, if you’re looking for 5-8 marks out of 16 for technical accuracy, you’ll have 3 or more types of punctuation and you’ll be using them right sometimes. 

But you don’t want Level 2. No, you want to know how you can get more than half marks.

So what does Level 3 mean?

This also says a range of punctuation is used. So we’re still looking for that 3 or more. And this says ‘mostly with success’. So… if you were 50:50 at Level 2, what does ‘mostly’ mean?

For me, 4 out of 5 is ‘mostly’. Or 8 out of 10. Roughly.

Now when I’m marking, it’s really reductionist. I look at each type of punctuation you’ve used and I ask myself, ‘Is this wrong?’ – if it’s not wrong, then it’s acceptable. It falls into that ‘mostly successful’.

I’m not asking myself if I would have used it.

I’m not asking myself if it’s the best choice.

I’m not asking myself if it really should have been a colon, since what follows is an explanation.

I’m asking myself if it is wrong, like that Level 1 question mark. If it’s wrong, it’s not successful. I’m asking myself if it’s acceptable or not. Does it work? Is it okay? In that case, it’s successful. If you’re at around 80% accuracy overall, then you’re ‘mostly accurate’. That’s a very rough number, and I’m not a bean counter sitting there weighing up percentages of being right for full stops vs being right for commas vs being right for apostrophes, then trying to balance them out and arguing in my head that commas must be worth more since they’re harder. I would never, ever finish marking. But it’s largely how my impressions are formed. I might take three random apostrophes and if two are right and one is wrong, then that’s ‘mostly’. If the wrong one is in it’s which a lot of professional writers get wrong, then I may even say you’re Level 4. This is why they’ll never teach computers to mark English because you have to balance out about a gazillion choices.

Suffice to say you have still a big margin of error if you need it at Level 3. You can still hit those notional Grades 5-7 with a fair few mistakes.

As for Level 4, the level to which we may all aspire, then you can see ‘wide range’ comes in there, and ‘high level of accuracy’. Now, if 3 is a range, what’s a wide range? Are we saying 5 or so? For me 5 or so is definitey a ‘wide’ range. There are about 14 marks in common use, and 5 is a wide range for a story or description.

Using a wide range is not a be-all-and-end-all though. Not at all. You can’t just say “I’m going to use 5 different types of punctuation” and expect to fall in Level 4. Plenty of students who try to use all 14 regular punctuation marks are going to still be in Level 2 or 3 if they aren’t used accurately or in the right place.

What I hate, by the way, are the responses from my students where they’ve done a little tick-list at the beginning and they’re forcing in a colon and a semi-colon. I hate that. I wish the word ‘natural’ was in there with ‘wide range’. A part of me dies inside when I see a punctuation checklist. You can’t reduce a Level 4 to a checklist.

What you get when people try to force in ALL those punctuation marks is this:

.,:;?!”” – ()’ — …

And then a diligent attempt to include them in a description or narrative.

We went upstairs. In the bedroom, there was: a bed; a cabinet; a wardrobe; a rug, and a rocking chair.


Just ouch.

First off, I never, ever want you to force punctuation into a piece of writing just to meet some notional idea about what a ‘wide range’ means.

Never, ever.

Secondly, if the only way you know how to use colons and semi-colons is in using a list, you need to go and have a word with your teachers. I don’t ever want to see a list in a story unless you are supremely gifted and a Grade 9 is a walk in the park. There are a multitude of lovely ways to use colons and semi-colons in writing, and you may well find yourself drawn to use them (appropriately) on Paper 2 by introducing a bullet-point list if that is in keeping with the form you’ve been asked to write in, but when I see them in a narrative or description, it makes me want to set fire to my eyes. Really.

Now, let’s get back to the punctuation I expect to see right and those where I’m less fussed if you make an error.

What we have to work with:

  • full stops
  • question marks
  • exclamation marks
  • ellipsis
  • omissive apostrophes
  • possessive apostrophes
  • speech marks
  • commas
  • dashes
  • semi-colons
  • colons
  • hyphens
  • brackets
  • paired dashes
  • paired commas

Basically, four kinds of category: those that mark the end of a sentence, those that float in the air, those in the middle of a sentence or splicing sentences, and those which add extra bits.

Let’s talk about which are hard and which are easy. Which do you expect students should get right and which are devilishly difficult?

Most students’ lists of ‘easy’ punctuation and ‘difficult’ punctuation looks a bit like this:

Ironically, this is loosely the order these are taught in at primary school.

But this is a bit of a false picture. In fact, when you think about easiness and difficulty in punctuation, the picture looks more like this:

In other words, what you think is difficult and what is actually difficult are very different.

I will explain. Omissive apostrophes (like won’t and don’t) are either right or wrong, on the whole. They are few in number and a limited number of places they can go. They are so easy that word-processing designers can teach word-processing software to identify where you’ve made a mistake, and your spellcheck software will tell you with that nasty little underlining and a ‘Do you mean won’t ?’ even if you meant wont. It’s a word, I promise. I look to omissive apostrophes as the most simple thing. Few rules. Few uses. Right or wrong. So if someone’s getting them wrong, then they’re not up in the echelons of “mostly successful”.

Speech marks are also fairly easy. They’re usually right or wrong. They have simple rules about where they go and what needs to go with them. I can look at a story and look at the dialogue and say, “Yes, this is fine!” or “no theyve not quite got it yet” (and if you’ve got eagle eyes, you’ll have seen where I made errors in that last bit of speech!) and it’s a good benchmark of Level-Three-Ness or Not-Level-Three-Ness.

Also, coincidentally and most fabulously, omissive apostrophes and speech marks are going to help you get a “wide range” because they crop up naturally in stories and description, and now you know that they are super-easy with few rules and clear ‘yes/no’ places to go, then you’ll be more interested in using them.

After that, question marks are also pretty easy. They have few rules and as long as you know how to form a question, you can get it right fairly easily, can’t you? Are there students who don’t know how to invert a verb and subject? What if they don’t know about question words? Perhaps they don’t get that it’s just about tone?

Possessive apostrophes are harder than omissive apostrophes, simply because you’ve got to know about plural nouns and not sticking an apostrophe in before (or after) every s at the end of the word. But there are rules. They are right or wrong. There’s a bit of a debate (if you’re an editor extraordinaire) on ridiculously complex things like whether you’re using words as adjectives or nouns, but by and large, there are clear rules and yes/no answers. Like if you’re writing about Emma’s blog, it’s going to have an apostrophe before the s and if you’re writing about the dog’s dinner, it depends on how many dogs (the dogs’ dinner or the dog’s dinner?) but if you mean one, it goes before and if you mean two it goes after. Okay, there are confusions about names and nouns ending in s (James’ bike or James’s bike?) but there are still rules.

Ellipsis are pretty easy too… I call them the ‘bumper car’ of punctuation. It’s pretty hard to actually use them wrongly… you can overuse them, sure, but … well… hard to get in a big, nasty catastrophic crash with them…

By the way, if you’re a master of the simple omissive apostrophe, speech marks, question marks, ellipsis and possessive apostrophes as well as full stops, you’ve got a ‘wide range’ of… duh duh duh… exactly the kind of punctuation that regularly crops up in narratives.

Nice. The easy stuff is actually the useful stuff. No need maybe for those brackets or semi-colons.

But you want a few more under your belt maybe?

Exclamation marks are a style thing, but again they have rules! Emotional outbursts might need them. Orders could have them. Some people over-use them, and others don’t use them enough. I once responded to an email like this:


Because they said everything that needed to be said.

Personally, I think you can easily overdo them, but you shouldn’t leave them out altogether. Some people these days are like the Exclamation Police and would rather remove them from everything. Still, I can tell you if you’ve over-used them or if you’ve used one in the wrong place. So they’re easy-ish. Too many and it’s like being repeatedly slapped in the face, though. If your writing is peppered with ! and !! and even !!! then you need more drama from your words and construction, not your punctuation.

After that, we fall into the realms of ‘kind of complicated’, with full stops. Yes, I know we use them most of all, but loads of the time people get them wrong. Hence students who think a comma splice is okay. To understand full stops, you also have to know about sentence structures, have an understanding of grammatical stuff like subjects and verbs, objects and clauses. Very easy to get them wrong. Also, there are ‘rules’ like sentences should have finite verbs, and then there are sentences that break rules, like sentence fragments and minor sentences, which I love. Because they are so ubiquitous, they are hard and students make mistakes with them.

You’ll notice I’ve put colons and semi-colons on the same line. It’s my humble opinion that these should be taught more frequently and used more frequently. After all, if you can use ‘and’ to splice two sentences together, you can use a semi-colon. I’ll come back to these again and give you some more guidance, as I appreciate it’s not enough to say ‘they’re easy’ and leave it to you.

Hyphens are also a very under-rated punctuation mark. Again, simple rules, places where they aid meaning, and often very natural in most writing. Most of my students come to me not knowing when and where to use a hyphen, and that’s a travesty. Even Lee Child used a hyphen in his spartan, pared-down narrative. If you’re struggling for a ‘wide range’, a hyphen will definitely help you reach your five a day. For that, they too deserve a post of their own.

After this come the parenthetical punctuation marks – the punctuation that we use when we add additional information. Now these are not a one-size-fits-all type of punctuation: there are clear places where you’d use brackets over parenthetical commas, and much of that is to do with tone, text type and purpose. I know that may sound ludicrous but you are more likely to use brackets in information or explanation writing than you are in a story, for example.

Dashes are highly underrated and one of my favourites; I use them frequently. I don’t know why. I guess I think they add a bit of a zip. However, they can often do the work of a semi-colon, colon, ellipsis or comma – and for that reason, you’ve got to understand a lot of rules before you get to them. That said, they are – like the ellipsis – pretty hard to make errors with. They are definitely influenced by tone, register and purpose though – so you can’t go using them willy-nilly. And yes – they are definitely different from a hyphen.

Finally, we come to my bête-noir… the punctuation mark I despise. The comma. Why do I hate you so, little tadpole? Well, frankly, it’s because there are SO many rules. So many. They are used in so many ways, like with stacked adjectives and in lists. It separates clauses and marks off funky, fancy things like fronted adverbials. It’s used to clarify meaning when you repeat words next to each other. They mark out certain adverbs, moreover, but not others. So they have hundreds of rules to learn. That is not the be-all-and-end-all of this hideous little thing. I’m not even going to refer back to comma splicing which blights the end of sentences with weak and woeful punctuating. That horrible little mark causes wars, I tell you. Wars. Just get an editor from Chicago together with an editor from London and present them with this:

The Oxford Comma: discuss.

I mean, they can’t even decide if it’s the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma. If you’re not in the know, it’s whether or not you can put a comma before an ‘and’ in a list. People just have to agree to disagree.

And that’s what makes the comma the hardest, if you ask me. It’s a style thing. It’s got hundreds of rules, which you may or may not want to abide by. It’s so easy to get them wrong and so hard to get them perfect. Yet most students sail blithely through Question 5 with ne’er a thought about whether or not their comma use is acceptable or not. Commas are often the second mark used by students in a story, and one of the marks I use to justify to myself whether there is a range or not, yet most of the time they are very hit-and-miss in terms of accuracy. Often, they are the defining mark that make me decide whether a script is Level 3 or not.

So… I will do a further insight into semi-colons, colons and hyphens, since they are often so poorly used. I’ll also take you through some of the complications of punctuation in my next post and look at how you can use punctuation to really marshall and shape your words.

Before I leave you though, it’s important to say:

  • Include a range of punctuation by all means, and be conscious of having a range. Don’t be tempted to force that range though, and if you put in a list of objects to find a use of a colon in a story, don’t be surprised to find yourself with a Level 2.
  • Capital letters are not really punctuation. They’re typography and almost akin to spelling. A capital at the beginning of a sentence is related to sentence demarcation, not to punctuation, so if you ask me, an upper-case letter is not a punctuation mark. I won’t be counting it to make up a range if I get a story or description that relies only on full stops and commas.
  • Don’t overlook the humble hyphen. They should be used more than they are.
  • Absolutely don’t mess up your it’s and your its. I know ‘professional’ writers that do this and it is SO easy to correct. Plus it’s 100% right or 100% wrong. I don’t expect errors with omissive apostrophes if I’m going to award Level 3. Personally, I wouldn’t employ someone to write anything for me if they don’t know it’s and its.
  • Revise your punctuation and practise it! There are 14 or so marks in common use. Even if you decided to perfect your comma use and learn (and practise!) every single rule, it’ll take you less time than it would to try and improve your spelling.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking semi-colons or colons are difficult, or that full stops are easy.

If you’re a teacher or a parent, be pedantic and persistent with punctuation. There is no reason for sloppiness. Carelessness with comma splicing is worse than not knowing how to spell handkerchief or conscience. In about five hours of hands-on teaching and practice, you can see real dividends in terms of grades, and it’s the most simple way to secure a Level 3 or bump up to a Level 4.

Next time, a look at how you can use punctuation in practice, rather than me waxing lyrical about it.




Advice and Guidance for planning GCSE English Paper 1 Question 5: Narrative writing

Last time I was looking at Paper 1 Question 5 – descriptive writing – and today it’s the turn of narrative writing.

You can find information about Section A Questions 1 – 4 here:

You can find information on Section A here:

And some general guidance about question 5 here.

Personally, I prefer the narrative response, and my students generally tend to get better responses and marks with it, but that’s not to say you should always choose the narrative, should it be available to you. Don’t forget, there will be times when you will have a choice of TWO narratives or TWO descriptions, and that the description may not always be based on the photograph. You could easily get a narrative based on the photograph given too. The moral is to be prepared for all eventualities.

Whilst I prefer the narrative, it is easy to do a simple descriptive piece and cram a lot in, whereas a narrative can get a little unwieldy. Sometimes, you’re just stuck for a storyline. Description tends to be based on things most students are familiar with, and so it’s not as challenging if you are stuck for an idea.

If you prefer to avoid the fragrant romps with purple prose, narrative may well be the option for you.

Narrative in itself has a sense of chronology or time progression. The moving on of time gives you an innate structure. That’s something that descriptive writing doesn’t always have.

You can use this innate structure to help you plan.

Beginning – Middle – End.

It can be that simple.

You can make it more complicated if you think of

Situation – Complication – Resolution.

But again, it’s the same as Beginning – Middle – End, it just sounds more fancy.

And really, for a 50-minute narrative, you really do not want to be more detailed than that.

Things to avoid:

  • Casts of thousands. One or two characters, maybe three. That’s it. The November 2018 paper had a narrative based on a photo that had one person in it. If you write a story with one person in it, or one main character, you’ll be less likely to end up overcomplicating things. If you think simple stories with a limited number of characters can’t be developed, you need to have a look at Z for Zachariah, The Road or I am Legend. But you’ll rarely (ever?) find a short story with an enormous cast.
  • Starting the story way before the action. I don’t care that you woke up and ate your cornflakes if it has nothing to do with what later happens. Why do people think that stories must start at the very beginning of the day? Start in the moments before the action.
  • Feeling like you need to give an explained ending. Many of the stories I’ve read would have been much better without the last couple of paragraphs. If you write yourself into a corner, stop. Stop right where you are. I’ve seen too many good stories ruined by some kind of attempt to finish it off. If you get to the point where you can’t find a solution to your story, just leave it on a cliffhanger. I’d prefer a cliffhanger than a ‘and then I woke up’ or ‘it was all a dream’, I promise.

Start your plan with the solution. A simple twist in the tale is always nice.

Like… what if a school bully turns out not to be a school bully? What if the mild-mannered janitor turns out to be a spy? What if the dog saves the day?

And then work back.

Why would someone think the bully was a bully? Why would someone think the janitor wasn’t a spy? Why would a dog need to save the day?

That’s then the ‘complication’ or problem.

And then put them in a scene in which that problem can happen.

A scene where someone thinks the school bully will hurt them – turns out the bully isn’t a bully.

A set of spies have a meeting – a janitor clears up – he’s the spy

A school picnic – a boy gets lost – a dog finds him

Now I know they don’t sound like the most scintillating of plots. But they are the basis for so many stories. See how we all thought Snape was going to be the bad guy in Harry Potter? Story two is essentially Hong Kong Phoey-meets-Scooby Doo, and the last is every plot of Lassie or the Littlest Hobo. Simple plots are the stuff of our lives. It’s how you write them that counts.

And you’ll find another list of three to help you with that, too.

Narration (action) – Description – Dialogue.

I like to kind of portion it out. Start with a bit of action. Then add some description. Then some dialogue. Then some action.

I loosely plan three or four lines of conversation, then a bit of description using the same method as I used in the previous post.

Here’s an example short story that I wrote in the time. I typed it, which gave me a bit of a handicap. It runs in at about 600 words.

Although the safe haven and familiarity of school was only minutes behind him, the darkness made easy work of its last remnants of light and security. It cut him off from everything that was comfortable, everything that was known, and cast him out like a hesitant explorer. The inky darkness spilled through the cracks, forcing its way into forgotten corners, slipping through the streets, eating up the vestigial remains of the day. Beyond the distant gates, you could just see the faint lights of the estate; one by one, they were all turning off for the night, until he was left standing in the darkness. Staring at the darkness. He stood completely alone, between the isolated street lights, his only connection with the rest of the universe. 

Everything was silent, except for the flicker and hum of the lights above.

Daniel hated the walk home. He hated the darkness. He hated the long passageway that cut under the railway tracks. Most of all, he hated the boys who hung around at the tunnel, waiting for boys like him. Maybe tonight, they’d all have gone home. He’d been so long at the club in school that they were sure to have gone home by now, weren’t they? He hoped so. The silence seemed to confirm his thoughts.

As he reached the edge of the tunnel, the last street light seemed to flicker and fade, fizzing and buzzing, then dying. It seemed to find life once more, spluttered into life, and then died one final time.

He took a deep breath. The tunnel seemed darker than ever, with only the faintest pinprick of amber light from the other side. Daniel picked up speed and decided to run for it. The mouth of the tunnel opened cavernously. It was far from reassuring. He took a breath. Then another. Then he ran.

Panting hard, his coat billowing, his rucksack marking out each pace thumping at his back, his legs pounding, arms pumping, he made it a quarter way. Fifty yards. Then a hundred.

“Oi you!”

Daniel pulled up to a stop, only metres before the end of the tunnel and the relative security of the street lights. He turned around, the dread surging up from the pit of his stomach and he choked a little. Behind him, he could see nothing. The tunnel swallowed up the light. He took a breath and tried to reason with himself. Maybe he’d imagined the voice. Maybe it wasn’t meant for him. 

It was then that the streetlight chose to flicker back to life. 

For one horrible second, Marvin McGoran was lit up in an amber spotlight before the light faded for good. 

Marvin McGoran. Known for his enormous bulk and his love of violence. Marvin, who was every cartoon villain rolled into one. Marvin, the terror of the tunnel. 

It couldn’t have been worse. 

Through the darkness, Daniel heard the sound of footsteps. Not the usual heavy, singular, staccato footfall of Marvin at rest. No. The fast thudding of Marvin on the rampage. A thudding growing ever closer, punctuated by huge exhalations of breath as Marvin steamed towards him. 

Nothing for it. He had to run. Daniel turned on his heels and started into an immediate sprint, hoping that he could find the energy to outrun the certain terror that lay behind him. He picked up speed, finding a motivation from within that he didn’t know he had. Twenty yards left. Then five. 

Behind him, Daniel heard a huge crash as Marvin came tumbling to the ground. An advantage for sure. He smiled and slowed his pace. He’d live another day. There were grunts and groans as Marvin struggled to regain his feet. 

“Stop will yer?!”

Something in the panic of that voice brought Daniel to a halt. He stopped and turned to take a look. Marvin lay belly down on the concrete, like a conquered bull. 

“Can you give me a hand?”

Daniel would never understand what drove him to go back and help Marvin to his feet. Stupidity perhaps. Bravado brought on by lack of oxygen? Camaraderie for a fallen comrade? He took tentative steps towards the boy on the ground and put out his hand, before pulling him with some effort to his feet. 

“Alright? Sorry… I don’t know yer name. I’m Marvin… D’yer mind if I walk home with yer? I hate the dark.”

And that, my readers, is where I would leave that story. No point explaining how they got home. No point labouring it and dragging it out. I know there are faults in this simple narrative. Of course they are. I am a humble English teacher, not a novelist used to churning out short stories without the benefit of a good editor and a proofreader. Nevertheless, it serves as a simple example of the kind of story that combines those triple elements of dialogue, description and action. I’m going to use it again to dissect in terms of punctuation and sentence structures.

You can see I’ve made decisions about where to slow down the pace and add a little description, trying to create a little atmosphere and intrigue. You can also see how I’ve used dialogue to interrupt the action and speed it up. I’ve got a simple two-character story that I’ve fleshed out, a simple situation – a walk home from school – and a simple twist in the tale. We’re not talking Booker Prize winning, but then this is GCSE.


Advice and Guidance for planning Paper 1 Question 5 Descriptive writing

Last time, I looked at some general guidance for Question 5 on AQA’s GCSE English Language Paper 1, looking at some common mistakes and some strategies to help you. Today, I’m focusing in more depth on descriptive writing.

You can find information on Section A here:

To be honest, I’d be unlikely to do the descriptive writing response, since it is often harder to plan and organise descriptive writing. It is also often less easy to do because we have less experience at doing it. It lends itself to foul strings of adjectives and cheesy similes in ways that narrative doesn’t. To top it all off, you don’t get any extra marks for your pains.

But I know it is a popular choice for teachers who are insistent that it gets better grades (it doesn’t), and with students who like purple prose or fragrant romps through flowery language (like the 16 year old me) so what follows is some guidance to help you make the most of it. There may be years, too, where, there are two descriptive choices, so you have to be prepared. Besides, even if you are writing a narrative, you may find that you want to include a paragraph or two of descriptive writing.

Much of your descriptive writing is vastly improved through careful planning. To be honest, since there is no natural order to description, it’s VITAL that you plan it carefully, even if you are only including a short paragraph of it in a story.

By careful planning, I don’t mean a chaotic spider diagram or a list.

That is just a holy hot mess that doesn’t help you with anything much.

Neither do I mean a plan that covers the five senses. Please don’t do that. If I have to read one more response where someone is eating something just to cover some notional sense, I think I’ll lose the will to live. Touch if you must, but description is most powerful when allows the reader to visualise (ie see) and perhaps evokes sounds and smells to bring it to motion or life. It may also have moments of dialogue or narrative. Even the master painter-with-words Mr Charles Dickens manages to refrain from ‘pure’ description that doesn’t go anywhere in particular. There is usually some kind of narrative drive.

The best kind of plans for description are going to start with prepositions. These place words are going help you order it later on. They also help you think beyond ‘in front’, and they’ll help you should you want to take a ‘guided tour’ approach.

If you’re a canny planner, you’ll find yourself using positional prepositions like beyond, between and beneath more than on, in or up. With the right prepositions, you’ll be adding a flavour to your vocabulary that will improve it a great deal. Be careful though: just because yet further still may be a great use of prepositions doesn’t means that betwixt or yonder should ever find their way into a passage – unless you write like Keats or Wordsworth.

I’m thinking words and phrases like: above, yet higher still, in the distance, beyond, through, beneath, underneath, below, behind, inside, outside, yet further still.

Let’s reverse engineer the place prepositions in my most favourite paragraph of description ever: Dickens’ description of fog in Bleak House. Do English teachers have favourite paragraphs? Why of course they do!

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Fabulous isn’t it?

I’ve highlighted some of the prepositions. They’re not fancy or flash. We have no betwixts or yonders. Lots of ons and ins. But what you have is patterning. Can you see how we have up and then amongdown and then among? That’s a pattern on which the description rests. There is a thoughtfulness about that. All of those ins, ons, downs, intos, overs… they all support that notion of ‘Fog everywhere’.

When I plan like this, I try and think 360° around me as Dickens has done, and think above and below too.

So if it were a passage entitled ‘The Park’, I would think:

  • through the gates
  • up above
  • yet higher still
  • far in the distance
  • beyond that
  • just out of reach
  • beneath
  • below
  • beside me
  • alongside that

That’s more than enough to help me organise my thinking for a guided tour of sorts. It will of course be peppered with lots of ons, ins, ups, downs and intos, just as Dickens’ passage was.

What I then do is start to add nouns for the things I can see, hear and smell. I’m working roughly at a ratio of 8 sights, 2 sounds, 1 smell. The only reason I do this is that I know that humans are visual creatures. We often forget the sounds and smells. They are, though, the things that help make description vivid, help to bring it to life. So I’m going to use that 8:2:1 ratio just to remind myself of the sounds and smells which I might forget. I might even add some prepositions as I go. I might edit as well.

  • through the gates, [sound] the laughter of children, squawks of pleasure
  • up above [sight] kites soared
  • yet higher still [sight] birds weaved
  • Above it all [sight] a cloudless sky
  • far in the distance, [sight]a dog chasing squirrels [sound] yips of joy
  • beyond that, [sight], trees, the woods, [sight] the alien structures of the city,[sight] towers
  • beneath, [sight] a gravel path
  • next to me, [sight] a family picnic underneath a cherry tree, picnic rug showered with blossom, rosy-cheeked children in brightly-coloured coats, parents shivering over a flask
  • behind them, [sight] the lido, drained for winter. [flashforward] In the summer, busy with families, teenagers, gossip, sunbathers, office workers. [now] drab, flash of fake turquoise, forlorn
  • in the very heart of the park, [sight] an overgrown, derelict manor house, conservatory
  • Inside, [sight] warm, air rich with the [smell] smells of tropical plants

I can even use time prepositions or transport the reader to a different season for contrast, as you can see I did with a flashforward and a moment to anchor myself back in the present. That’s going to score me highly for organisation and structure, I promise!

Then I start to plan in my figurative language, my adjectives, my flashes of dialogue. I’m going to avoid alliteration at all costs, because it’s mainly horrible in prose writing. No alliteration. No sibilance. They are ugly and stand out like a sore thumb. Also, they’re the stuff you learn in Year 2. If you’re not good at it by Year 11, you never will be. A poor simile or a poor patch of pathetic and presumptious purple prose can really set a reader’s teeth on edge. You can find many examples of horrible alliteration and a really good explanation of what alliteration should do (great for Q2 on Paper 1!) here

Anyway, my plan with some figurative language stuck in there:

  • through the gates, [sound] the laughter of children, squawks of pleasure, squeals of joy
  • up above [sight] kites soared, making busy stitches on the fabric of the sky
  • yet higher still [sight] birds circled and plummeted, aerial acrobatics, weaved and dived,
  • Above it all [sight] a cloudless sky, cold, deceptive,
  • far in the distance, [sight]a dog chasing squirrels [sound] yips of joy
  • beyond that, [sight], trees, the woods, [sight] the alien structures of the city,[sight] towers rising up like… (simile?)
  • next to me, [sight] a family picnic underneath a cherry tree, picnic rug showered with blossom, rosy-cheeked children in brightly-coloured coats, parents shivering over a flask, discarded sandwiches, crinkled napkins. “James, no!” and parents trying to wipe the dirty, jam-smeared faces of their uncooperative offspring.
  • behind them, [sight] the lido, drained for winter. [flashforward] In the summer, busy with families, teenagers, gossip, sunbathers, office workers. [now] drab, flash of fake turquoise, forlorn
  • in the very heart of the park, [sight] an overgrown, derelict manor house, conservatory – a lost world, sanctuary from the icy spring winds
  • Inside, [sight] warm, air rich with the [smell] smells of tropical plants, heavy, muggy, unpleasant

That is quite a lot to invest into a plan, I know. But the writing is SO much more organised and easy as a result, I promise!

What you DON’T want to do, along with avoiding alliteration and sibilance, any poor similes or hackneyed metaphors, is to use them to start your sentences in a repetitive manner. It’s tempting, but it’s ugly.

Here’s my horribly purply version.

Through the gates, a lively breeze carries bursts of children’s laughter, brash and unguarded, peppering the air with squawks of pleasure and squeals of joy. This laughter runs some distance over the walls, dodging in among the houses and cars that surround the park, rising and riding the current. The wind picks up kites, too, and they rise and fall above us, making busy stitches across the fabric of the sky. Birds catch onto the currents too, and treat us to a display of aeriel acrobatics. Yet higher still, they circle and plummet, weaving and diving in a performance that goes largely unnoticed.

Can you see how descriptive writing ends up ugly? That’s only three of my planned bullet points! So many metaphors and achy bits. Some bits are nice. I do like the busy stitches bit if I do say so myself. But all together, it’s like a face with too much make-up – overdone and jaw-droppingly stareworthy – and not in a good way. This is why I like the narrative choice, because I can do a bit of this and then move on to some actual action. You can see why also even ‘pure’ description is going to need some narrative to interrupt the horribly purple bits.

Where would I go from here to reign it in a bit?

A mini-story.

A toddler in a bright yellow jacket finds release from his mother’s grip and races off at a surprising speed. What he lacks in skill, he makes up for in enthusiasm, and he is free.
“Harry!” his mother cries, but he runs on regardless. It becomes a game and he weaves through a picnic, crashing through sandwiches and crisps, avoiding the grabbing arms of the family who try to stop him. He makes a break and veers left, towards the duck pond.
“Harry, come back here!”
The mother’s shouts go ignored. Her thoughts of a quiet break from the dreary tedium of the terrible twos are ruined, and her face is frantic as she tries to catch up to her errant child before he makes it to the ducks.
It is too late. By the time she catches up to him, he is knee-deep in the muddy water, surrounded by the angry quacks of several mother ducks who find their broods disturbed. As she pulls him from the water, his joy turns to an immediate tantrum. She shushes him, embarrassed, but he will not be pacified.

Still, with my prepositions, my nouns, my adjectives, my figurative language… I know I have more than enough to write about, especially if I include a mini-narrative or two, a little bit of dialogue. Think of yourself as creating an opening scene to a movie rather than trying to describe a photograph.

By including these prepositions and mini-stories about the character(s) in the scene, you’ll avoid some of the list-like repetition or need to rely on ‘describing the senses’ which can end up really, really ugly.

Next time, I’ll look at some ways to plan and write narrative that will help you avoid the pitfalls of story writing so that you can maximise your grades.

If you’re interested in further revision sessions for either GCSE English Language or GCSE English Literature, feel free to get in touch via my website

I currently have a limited number of places for 2019 students with sessions costing £20 for the hour and I am also taking bookings for September 2018 for Year 9 and 10 students.