Sentence Structure # 04 Word Choice: The Sharper, The Better

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There is a difference between “Someone stole the priest’s thing!” and “The abbot’s lover absconded with his most prized Bible!” and that difference is owed to word choice. The more exact the words you make use of, the better. Words are the writer’s tools; you’ll want to avoid those with a blunted edge. Instead, you want your words to be sharp, to cut through the mind’s haze and shatter your reader’s pretty little heart!

Think of the last news article you clicked. Odds are, the headline was striking enough to catch your attention in-between the mountains of forgettable text the Internet is chock-full of. My last read? Pediatrician Seema Jilani’s first-person account of the Beirut catastrophe, titled: Broken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast. See how evocative it is? The words immediately call to mind the recent tragedy, while at the same time providing ample space for the reader to add their own association with the first half of the title. These are concrete words, which forecast the very real and horrific experience the writer — and hundreds of thousands others — went through, an event that will continue to define many lives for months and years to come.

The opening of the article proper does not lose any steam:

As I emerged from the car, the air was still whirring with debris. Everything was eerily silent. But it wasn’t. I just couldn’t hear anything. My ears were ringing.

The street scene in front of me, almost two blocks from my apartment and walking distance from the epicenter of the blast, was a silent horror film. Stunned people stumbled out of cafés, dogs dripping with blood cowered in corners, cars crumpled under chunks of concrete. A young girl approached me, dust layered in her eyelashes and hair.

Broken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast
Seema Jilani for the NYR Daily

I turned away from that article devastated, my understanding of the tragedy in Beirut now no longer merely the intellectual kind that a horrific tragedy happened which affected an entire city and its population; but the emotional understanding of and response to the plight of one family, and through that plight, the resonance that a thousand–ten thousand, a hundred thousand– families went through a visceral experience that has traumatised a society.

Hey, look at me breaking my own rule about sentence length. Back to the topic at hand…Such is the strength of concrete word choice; it is the most certain way of evoking the experience you want from your readers, and it’s among the most important building blocks in the writer’s toolbox.

Remove bland, general words from your writing unless they serve a very specific function in your sentence. June Casagrande puts it best:

I never want to read that your character heard a noise. I never want to read that the burglar stole some things. I never want to learn that your actions had an effect, that your CEO implemented a new procedure, or that your employees enjoyed a get-together.

I want loud thuds and Omega wristwatches. I want e-mail surveillance and sudden firings. Tell me that your CEO is cracking down on personal phone calls and that the accounting department held its annual drunken square dance and clambake in the warehouse.

Use specific words. Make it a habit to scrutinize your nouns and verbs to always aks yourself whether you’re missing an opportunity to create a more vivid experience for your Reader. This habit will open up a world of choices.

Chapter 6, Words Gone Mild

There isn’t much more to this topic, and the post can be distilled to the following advice from Yoda: Be mindful, young Padawan.

…Or was that a piece of advice from yoga?

Either way, vague words are the enemy. Cast them into the fire, and don’t look back.

Sentence Writing #03: Long and Short Sentences

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Few elements of style can harm your work the way an overbusy, cluttered sentence can. But reading about cluttered sentences from a theoretical standpoint is one thing — seeing one such sentence is entirely different.

Let’s construct a glorious Example:

My ratonnastick, being a perfectly good fellow at heart who always knew his lot in life and lived as only a ratonnastick could–on a stick–was simply ecstatic about being prepared with a pinch of salt, a little pepper, several squirts of ketchup and an uncanny amount of lemon juice, which added just that extra little bit of punch, so necessary for satisfying the palates of members of high society.

It’s okay to write a sentence such as this one in a first draft*; it’s negligent to have it in a finished manuscript. A sentence like this is an offense against any potential reader you might hope to court. This sentence wanders from one idea to the next, uncertain of what it’s trying to say; so it ends up saying too much. Why don’t we break down all the pieces of information in the sentence below:

  • My ratonnastick is a good fellow at heart.
  • He always knew his lot in life.
  • He lived only as a ratonnastick could live.
  • My ratonnastick was ecstatic about the method of his preparation.
  • He was prepared with an assortiment of condiments.
  • The lemon juice adds an extra punch.
  • Members of high society have a taste for lemon juice.

That’s…seven(7!) unique ideas we’ve uncovered tucked underneath the conjunctions and dependent clauses of our long sentence. Can you figure out the main clause? Scroll past the picture of our revered lord and saviour, the ratonnastick, to find out!

That’s right, the main clause in this sentence is equivalent to, “My ratonnastick was ecstatic about the method of his preparation.” I’ve cut the list of condiments, because they’re all prepositional phrases that take up too much space. Better to be frugal in your choice of words.

So much of the information in this sentence is excessive, bloated and delivered in a way that is non-conducive to holding the reader’s interest. (This would be a good moment to remind you that you’ll usually be writing with at least some implied Reader in mind. For these blog posts, my implied Reader is an older, more dashing version of me who still considers his earlier self hilarious. Ergo, the jokes.)

Let’s rewrite this sentence in a way that doesn’t make the Reader want to gorge their eyes out, shall we?

My ratonnastick, being was a perfectly good fellow at heart. who He always knew his lot in life and lived as only a ratonnastick could–on a stick. That’s why hewas simply ecstatic about being cooked. prepared The chefs used a pinch of salt, a little pepper, several squirts of ketchup and some an uncanny amount of lemon juice., which This last ingredient addsed just that extra little bit of punch, so necessary for satisfying the palates of which plays well with members of high society.

As you see, in addition to rearranging this sentence, I’ve also changed a few details. But let’s clear it up:

My ratonnastick was a perfectly good fellow at heart. He knew his lot in life and lived as only a ratonnastick could–on a stick. That’s why he was ecstatic about being cooked. The chefs used a pinch of salt, a little pepper, several squirts of ketchup and some lemon juice. This last ingredient adds extra punch, which plays well with members of high society.

Bit strange, but I think we’ve found a motif to all these blog posts, and it’s onnnastick. More importantly, this is now a legible paragraph. Shorter sentences interplay with longer ones, and create an ebb and flow that makes this easy to read. This rewrite differentiates the different pieces of information. It gives them space to breathe and allows the reader to wrap his mind around what’s going on; in a word, it makes the writing more comprehensible.

All of this is not to say that you should avoid using longer, more complex sentences. You might seek to create moods that a long sentence can imbue much better than a short one; confusion, uncertainty, paranoia come to mind as three such moods. Or you might be aiming for a particular effect, as Rachel Cusk is in her Outline trilogy**.

But what does great sentence sage June Casagrande say about the question of short versus long sentence use?

Allow me to end this debate once and for all. Here’s how you should look at it: Brevity is a tool. It’s a very powerful tool. You don’t have to use it. But you have to know how. If you’re going to use long sentences, it should be by choice, not due to bumbling ineptitude. Every long sentence can be broken up into shorter ones, and if you don’t know how–if you don’t see within your long sentences groupings of simple, clear ideas–it will show.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

This post by no means advocates the exclusive use of short sentences — that’s a one-way street to monotonous writing, which will bore the Reader to tears — as a novice editor on Fiverr, I’ve encountered several lifetimes’ worth of that problem. Rather, my aim here is to ask you to avoid use of meandering, rambling sentences that keep going on and on and on and on and on well past their end point. Be cautious in your verbosity, dear Reader. Oh, and one last piece of advice from Casagrande’s chapter on the topic:

Only someone who can see ideas in their most pared-down form can begin stringing them together in ways that make an outrageously long sentence work.

So you see, size DOES matter. Just…not in the way you think.

*This one is comically cluttered…as is my mind.

**To get a taste of the kind of writing Cusk is known for, you should read my essay on Transit, which imitates the author’s style to some success.


Thank you for reading, everyone! If you enjoyed this third post in the series, but haven’t checked out the previous two – go back to the link at the top and take a few minutes to browse through them! As always, I owe a debt of gratitude to June Casagrande and her book on sentence construction.

Got any questions? Leave them in the comments down below!

I’ve also got a YouTube channel, where I produce video essays about games and all manner of nonsense. I also review fantasy and sci-fi novels over on The Fantasy Hive – and I’m far from alone. Check it out, it’s got wonderful content, we’re doing #WomenInSFF features for all of July!

Sentence Writing #02: Clauses and Phrases

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This series of posts owes a lot to, and borrows from, June Casagrande’s book on sentence style, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.

Today, we shall delve in the deepest recesses of the earth, and talk about the abusive step-father of all writers, Grammar Proper. And what’s more proper than talking about clauses and phrases? …Cocktail napkins, perhaps? I don’t get out nearly enough.

Grammar, Stephen King writes, “is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.” Or so Casagrande reports in Chapter 3 of her book on the subject, the topic of which makes the heading of this blog post. I sure hope she hasn’t lied; I’d hate to misquote Mr. King.

Here’s Stevie!

What does a clause need contain to be complete? Simple enough — a noun and a verb*. That’s why statements such as “Filip snickered,” “Mishka groaned,” and “Albert abstained” are complete sentences…if not very informative. Building a relationship between separate clauses is child’s play; take the topic of my last post, subordinating conjunctions: Although Filip snickered, Mishka groaned. Why is Filip snickering and Mishka groaning? We’ll find out once we introduce some prepositional phrases!

Some wot wots, you ask? Bend me your ear, chum, and I’ll tell ya all about phrases! But first, I’ll ask a question of my own:

What’s the difference between a clause and a phrase? A clause can form a sentence on its own, while a phrase cannot. Casagrande has her pulse on those nasty, no-good phrases: “A phrase is a single word or a cluster of words that together work in your sentence as a single part of speech.” They come in five varieties: noun phrases, verb phrases, adverb phrases, adjective phrases and prepositional phrases.

Now, let’s break the simple sentences above into different phrases. We’ve got the noun phrases, which above consist of Filip, Mishka and Albert, and — no, don’t freak out! I know I said phrases, then gave you proper names, what kind of a monster am I?! But y’see, Reader, proper names can function as noun phrases with no problem whatsoever. We can add modifiers to these noun phrases: The mocking Filip snickered, as well as, Mousy Mishka. Both “the mocking”(article and adjective) and “mousy” are now parts of the noun phrases of each sentence.

The verb phrases are simple enough — they consist of the verbs themselves, and any simple additions with nightmare titles such as “Modality,” “Aspects,” “Auxiliaries,” and “THE OPERATOR”. I shall not go into any of these unless necessary, because I do not wish to encourage suicide by grammar cop.

Now let’s expand our complex sentence:

Unsurprisingly, when the ever-mocking Filip snickered at her, mousy Mishka groaned in her hands.

Let’s do a proper breakdown of what’s going on in this sentence. First of all, I hate adverbials with a fiery passion. I’m only using “Unsurprisingly” to give you all an example of an adverbial phrase. You can put an adverbial phrase before or after either of the two clauses. When the ever-mocking Filip snickered at her, mousy Mishka groaned in her hands, unsurprisingly. Or: When the ever-mocking Filip snickered at her, moust Mishka unsurprisingly groaned in her hands.

Moving on. “When” is our subordinating conjunction, and it defines the first of the two clauses as belonging to a lower grammatical level than the second. “The ever-mocking Filip” is our noun phrase, and “snickered” is our verb phrase. “At her” modifies the action, is a prepositional phrase, and plays the part of object of the subordinated clause in this complex sentence.

How about the second part of the sentence? We’ve covered most of this already, except for “in her hands” which is also a prepositional phrase, which describes manner, i.e. how the action is done. And there we’ve got it, an analysis of my relationship with poor Mishka.

We are missing a single type of phrase, the adjective phrase. Let’s throw a pair of examples out, shall we?

His rat-onna-stick smelled mouth-wateringly delicious. Faster than the train to Busan, I bit into it.

The adjective phrase can appear at the start, end, or in the middle of a sentence clause. Its purpose is to describe a noun or pronoun in a sentence. In the first sentence, the adjective phrase is, “mouth-wateringly delicious“, and in the second — “Faster than the train to Busan“.**

We can break these yet further–and indeed, if we were doing a thorough gramatic analysis, we would define the role of each and every word before connecting them into phrases, only then defining each phrase’s role in the overarching sentence using two different types of diagrams. Simple enough stuff, but time-consuming.

Finally, it’s worth looking at the kind of error you might commit if you’re not responsible with your use of prepositional phrases. Casagrande tells us this is a “supposedly real classified advertisement that once offered for sale mixing bowl set designed to please cook with round bottom for efficient beating“.

…What am I supposed to do with the cook’s bottom, again? Anyway, it’s good to see the ol’ chef is breaking away from stereotype and exercising — wonder how many squats he does to keep his bottom nice and round?

Joke aside, the mistake here is that the prepositional phrases which should modify the noun phrase, “mixing bowl set,” are placed after the object, “cook,” and so end up modifying our poor working man in ways at once sexist and demeaning. We will revisit the wonderful and wonderous world of prepositional phrases at a later time.

Until then, thanks for reading!

*I tried adding a rat onna stick in there, but was censured by multiple authorities on sentence structure and style.

**Don’t ask me why I threw that reference in, I haven’t even seen the movie.

Sentence Writing #01: Conjunctions and Subordination

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This series of posts owes a lot to, and borrows from, June Casagrande’s book on sentence style, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.

After scribbling, “Subordinating conjunctions can make your writing a living hell,” cursing this whole blogging thing for being so time-consuming, and coming away from it with a diminished sense of self, I felt exhausted.

What’s wrong with this sentence? What is it about it that doesn’t sound quite right? Why, it’s the subordinating conjunction! If we want to get more technical about it, it’s the role that the subordinating conjunction defines between an independent clause and any number of dependent clauses. In the example above, that role is problematic. The subordinating conjunction after creates upside-down subordination — meaning that the sentence takes a boring piece of information like I felt exhausted, and treats it as if it is the most notable event stated over there. In terms of grammar, the more important information is overshadowed by what is boring and everyday – my feeling tired. The more interesting actions are “relegated to a lower grammatical status,” as Casagrande puts it.

Subordinating conjunctions are a dime a dozen, and include although, as, because, before,if, since, than, though, unless, until, when, and while. (Casagrande, Chapter 2). These all have the same inherent capability as after — they grammatically signal the reader’s mind that all that stuff in the subordinating clause — it’s secondary, it’s something to get through before the main point comes in hot.

Let’s try for a few more sentences which showcase this issue, shall we?

Until Mishka can see the spaceship, sneak into it and become the star system’s most daring stowaway, her lone purpose in life is to sit around.

In the sentence above, the subordinating conjunction is until. There’s a whole story in the three subordinate clauses in the sentence above, and yet all of them are relegated as side-points to the fascinating action of…sitting around. Is that what the French call joie de vivre? Probably not–but it showcases the problem this blog post digs into, and how carelessness in the use of subordinating conjunctions can lead to sloppy writing. Let’s try another one:

Since you killed my pet rat, I’m a bit miffed.

This one can be good or bad, depending on what the author is trying to accomplish , what he’s attempting to bring to the reader’s attention. Was the author trying to make the point that the addressee killed the speaker’s pet rat? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then the author hasn’t done a good job of it. If, however, the author was trying to underline the unusual reaction of the speaker, then, I would argue, he’s succeeded.

…Rat onna stick, anyone?

Image courtesy of the Discworld Emporium.

Place in your main clause the information you want to engage the reader with first and foremost. Don’t allow yourself the indolence of placing unimportant details on a pedestal, while stuffing the dependent clauses full of interesting information.

To wrap this up, let’s try for one sentence that makes good use of subordinating conjunctions:

Although he was bone-dry tired, Filip took great pride in taking the time to explore the exciting world of subordinating conjunctions.

Thanks for reading!

It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences by June Casagrande – Book Review

It’s rare that you find a book on sentence construction that has so warm a tone. June Casagrande’s It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Longest of Titles is an excellent guide on writing, chock-full of common and uncommon issues that plague the amateur and the intermediate writer alike.

“A writer’s guide to crafting killer sentences,” the cover quips at you, and with good reason — why, only yesterday I wrote a sentence so sharp, my fingers are still bleeding. Casagrande offers so much in this tiny 220-page package; her half-amusing hatred of semi-colons alone makes the price of admission well worth it.

What topics can you look forward to reading about? Murderous conjuctions, unparalleled parallels, gerunds to dream nightmares of, and my favourite – short versus long sentences. Plus, appendixes full of well-explained grammar, punctuation and more. It ain’t Tolkien-level extensive but it’s English, not Elvish.

A small complaint – as someone who has studied English for a long time now, plenty of the grammar explanations were at a very basic level. If you’re a grammar noobie, though, this might offer some extra value!

Jokes aside, I learned a lot from this one. Some of the concepts introduced in the chapters, I knew at an intuitive level. Others were familiar. A few surprised me. Either way, I’m glad to have a deeper understanding than I did before, thanks to Casagrande’s approachable book. I’ll be coming back to it time and again. In fact…

I’m planning on writing a post for each chapter of the book over the coming weeks – I’ll need something to do come summer!