Have you ever tried to use a range of sentence forms in your writing?
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:
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.
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)
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.
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.
I don’t think there is anything left to say.
Haven’t you got anything better to do?
I haven’t any examples!
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.