GCSE English Language Writing Types: Speech

In the last couple of posts, I’ve been looking at the different genres of writing that you could get on AQA English Language Paper 2. We’ve covered articles and letters so far in the process, and today I’m looking at speeches.

So, another genre that’s a little contrived and a little out of most people’s comfort zone. Other than Best Man speeches at a wedding, few people actually get up and speak in front of other people once they’re out in the real world. Some of us may go on to do a lot of public speaking. Some of us may be in debating teams. Others may just fancy leading others into revolution and revolt. But there is a reason that public speaking is our greatest fear… and why so many people shy away from it.

In school, it’s a little different. Teachers like giving you a speech to prepare. Assemblies are one place you might get called on to speak, and you may well get a spoken project in class for one subject or another.

I don’t know about you – and no offence to anyone reading this – but many of the speeches I asked for at the beginning of my teaching career were duller than you could possibly imagine.

“Now, Year 7,” the younger version of me would say, “I’d like you to do a speech about one of your hobbies…”

Cue 15 talks about fishing, 5 about ponies, 3 about rabbits, 2 about rugby league rules and 1 about playing video games.

All of those talks were at least 30 minutes long and we spent the best part of April and May as a captive audience with me shushing anyone who dared whisper at the back.

And then there was invariably the Year 11 post-work experience talks. Cue 3 weeks of students talking about how many cups of tea they made and how they never, ever want to work in an office.

I got savvy after this. I copied good stuff on television and we did Room 101 speeches about things that bugged us. Year 8 did a magic trick and ran through the formal patter of magicians. I ran a thing called “It’s So Unfair!” based on the fiction of Jon Scieszka and we played the much-maligned characters from fairy stories. My favourite ever was one of my Year 11s doing a retelling of The Grinch, written in perfect Dr Seuss rhyme. I got to dress up as an Ugly Sister and I didn’t have to listen to people talking about working in their mum’s estate agency.

Hoorah.

What I wanted were the kind of socially-conscious kids who were passionate about social issues as I had been. But then I was a weird child and I’m pretty sure nobody feels as strongly as I felt about ethics at 14. I’d have loved to have ushered the Next Great Speaker into the world by way of listening to Churchill, Shakespeare’s Henry V, Martin Luther King and such like, but it never happened.

But exam boards still seem to cling on to the last, desperate hope that some of today’s yoof are more interested in local community centres than they are in the lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and so needs must.

You’re just going to have to prepare for being Teenage Me, and giving a rip-roaring speech to a captive audience an audience of your peers about something that will bore the pants off them a recent hot topic.

Let’s talk, then, about the conventions and customs of public speaking, about the register and devices that most of them use, so that you can attempt to be more speechy in your writing tasks. Otherwise, without that speechiness, what you’re writing is just an essay, or the main body of an article, without the article-y bits.

Like articles and like letters, much of speechiness rests in your opening and ending. What you do there can show whether or not you have enough of a grasp about speeches to be ‘convincing’.

So what do AQA say you might do when writing your speech? Let’s start there.

As a minimum, you could include:

 a simple address to an audience
 sections
 a final address to an audience.

So, I’m not really seeing anything very speechy. You might find those features in articles or letters.

For more developed responses, you could include:

 a clear address to an audience
 effective/fluently linked sections to
indicate sequence
 rhetorical indicators that an audience is
being addressed throughout
 a clear sign off e.g. ‘Thank you for
listening’.

So some of it is about linking, just you’ll find in letters, leaflets and articles. Some is about stuff that you can do that shows awareness of a live audience. And the rest is those openings and endings.

Generally speaking, when we stand up to do a speech, someone else has introduced us. It’s customary to thank them for having you, for hosting you, for giving you a bit of a soapbox on which to stand. Like letters, polite – but not to the point of obnoxiousness. You’ve got to get the tone and content right. No shouty ranting, no matter how on board your audience is with your talk.

Forget those “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”, or those “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears” kind of openings that grab your reader right from the start. In real life, most speeches start with some fairly standard conventions.

One of those is the thank you to your audience and your hosts. You can thank them for taking the time to listen to you, for inviting you, for indulging you, for giving you time to speak. You can also nod your head to the occasion and event, if it’s mentioned in the task. You can explain why your host invited you to speak.

It’s also a really good idea to introduce yourself a little bit.

When you’ve done that, then you can build up to the persuasive bits or get your rhetorical devices in.

Let’s have a look at the November 2017 task:

‘Education is not just about which school you go to, or what qualifications you
gain; it is also about what you learn from your experiences outside of school.’

Write a speech for your school or college Leavers’ Day to explain what you think
makes a good education.

Great. Captive audience of wild-eyed Year 11s who just want to get out and indulge in whatever the Leavers’ Day traditions are, be they something innocuous like writing on everyone’s shirts, or something deeply childish like egging each other or throwing flour bombs. Half the schools I worked at had the police on call on Leavers’ Day… and you’ve got to give a speech to these foaming-mouthed teenagers who just want to let off a bit of steam before exams start??!

I’m guessing that it was anticipated you’d all have warm, emotional and inspirational assemblies with teary-eyed year 11s all wise, nostalgic and sentimental, happy to sit through ten minutes of you waffling about a good education.

So let’s imagine that scenario, shall we, rather than an irate headteacher who’s spent ten minutes reminding you all that if you egg anyone, your Prom privileges are forfeited and you won’t be welcome back in school except for your exams.

Before we start, I’d like to share with you one of my favourite assembly speeches, from Ja’mie, star of Summer Heights High.

A great example of some of the conventions of speeches, as well as some cringeworthy examples of how not to alienate your captive audience. Some dos and don’ts based on Ja’mie’s example:

  • Do thank the people who asked you to speak
  • You don’t need to thank absolutely everyone involved
  • Do introduce yourself
  • Don’t alienate your audience
  • Do try to make yourself sound friendly and sincere
  • Do speak directly to your audience and include things in your speech that make it clear that you’re trying to engage them
  • Be polite
  • Do use facts and statistics if they fit in
  • Don’t wander off topic in an attempt to engage your audience
  • Finish with a call to action and a polite imperative
  • Don’t use ones that are rude about your listeners and definitely don’t talk to them as if they are stupid!

So how would I open and end my speech explaining my ideas about a good education in that fictional Leavers’ Assembly?

First, I’d thank the head teacher, who I guess would have introduced me. And then I’d thank the audience for listening. I’d introduce myself, even though they may already know who I am. I’m not going to try to be funny or smart, because I try that sometimes and I’m so bad at it. I have a student currently who is really, really good at it. If you can pull off a comical, satirical or humorous approach and it would be fitting for the occasion, audience and purpose, go for it.

Here’s my sample opening:

Thank you, Mr Burns, for your kind introduction and having chosen me to speak today. I’m sure you can all well imagine the terror of having to stand up and speak. It’s the ultimate revenge, I’m sure, for all those times we misbehaved in class or made it difficult for our teachers to actually do their job. It is, of course, an honour, not a punishment, to be speaking to you all today on this most auspicious occasion: what may be, for some of us, our final day in school. Certainly, our final day together as a group before we begin our exams.

Although I am unsure why I’ve been chosen today to represent the student voice, I know part of it must be how passionate I am about what goes into a good education. It is not just about bums on seats and how many Powerpoints Mr Ambrose can take us through in Biology. Nor is it about results or who gets the best grades. What makes a good education is so much more than that.

And in my ending, I’m going to try once again to refer to occasion, to the audience.

As I come to the end, I hope you share my vision of what makes a good education, but that you also share my gratitude to the school for the role they have played in giving us the very best. I know I also speak for us all when I thank the school for playing their part in making our school days truly the best days of our life, and I know you will join with me now in thanking our headteacher, Mr Burns, and his wonderful and dedicated body of staff who have given us so very much. Whilst education may be many things, it is in no small part down to those people who provide it for us.

I hope I speak on behalf of our year group when I ask that you  accept our most sincere thanks. We will go out into the exams and the world beyond hoping to do you proud.

Not Julius Caesar or Henry V, not Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, but speechy for sure. Appropriate, I hope, for the occasion and the audience, too.

Next up: leaflets

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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.

Declarative.

I hate sentences.

Interrogative.

Are you still with me?

Exclamative.

Boring!

Imperative.

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.