Waxing sententious about sentences

With enthusiasts like Doug Lemov, the sentence is finally, after years of neglect, regaining its due. And this due is long overdue. After all, the sentence is the minimal unit of thought. It derives from Latin sententia, meaning “opinion” (and shares its root with “sententious”). As Catherine has cited J.S. Mill as saying, “the structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.” And, as I noted in my last post, it’s the smallest unit of prose that lends itself to multiple revisions.

Typically, sentence-revision enthusiasts have focused on syntax errors, word choice, and introductory phrases like “although” or “in desperation.” But Catherine and I would like to take this further—or, rather, we’d like to take a step back to consider the bigger picture. We’d like to move beyond errors and word choice to word order. And, in considering word order, we’d like to move beyond isolated sentences to sentences within texts.

What are the various word order options? Which ordering maximizes how well a sentence fits into its host paragraph and connects to what immediately precedes or follows it? What are the various options for taking apart and recombining the sentences in a text—even while making minimal changes to content? Which of these options maximizes clarity, flow, and sense of purpose?

We find that choices about word order and sentence combining can have an enormous impact, not just on how clearly the writer’s ideas come across and flow together, but on how interested and engaged the reader is. I’ll repeat here a rewrite I did of a passage from my son’s world history textbook.

The original:

Frederick I was the first ruler to call his lands the Holy Roman Empire. However this region was actually a patchwork of feudal territories. His forceful personality and military skills enabled him to dominate the German princes, yet whenever he left the country, disorder returned. Following Otto’s example, Frederick repeatedly invaded the rich cities of Italy. His brutal tactics spurred Italian merchants to unite against him. He also angered the Pope, who joined the merchants in an alliance called the Lombard League.

In 1176, the foot soldiers of the Lombard League faced Frederick’s army of mounted knights at the Battle of Legnano. In an astonishing victory, the Italian foot soldiers used crossbows to defeat feudal knights for the first time in history. In 1177, Frederick made peace with the pope and returned to Germany. His defeat, though, had undermined his authority with the German princes. After he drowned in 1190, his empire fell to pieces.

My rewrite:

Frederick I was the first ruler to call his lands the Holy Roman Empire. This region, however, was actually a patchwork of feudal territories. So long as Frederick remained in these territories, his forceful personality and military skills enabled him to dominate the German princes who ruled there. But whenever he left, disorder returned.

Frederick left the country frequently. His destination was Italy, where, like Otto, he repeatedly invaded the rich cities. But his brutal tactics spurred Italian merchants and the Pope to unite against him (in an alliance called the Lombard League).

In 1176, at the Battle of Legnano, Frederick’s army of mounted knights faced the Lombard League’s foot soldiers. In an astonishing, unprecedented victory, crossbow-wielding foot soldiers defeated knights on horseback. Frederick made peace the next year with the pope and returned to Germany. But his defeat had undermined his authority with the German princes and, with his death in 1190 (a drowning), his empire fell to pieces.

Often, what looks like an issue about content is actually one of word order and sentence combining. In my rewrite above, for example, I barely changed any words, let alone any content.

Or consider that bugaboo of so many student papers: the issue of unclear connections or significance. Time and again, as a student, I’d receive papers back with comments like “how is this significant?” “how does this connect to your thesis?”. Time and again, as an instructor, I’d find myself writing these same comments in the margins of my students’ papers. Without thinking it through carefully, I’d generally assume, whether as a student or as an instructor, that the way to address these questions about significance or relevance was to add more content. And yet often this approach would end up bogging down the paper—and putting it over the word limit. Only recently did I start considering a much under-appreciated alternative: simply change the word order and the divisions between sentences.

Here’s a hypothetical example from a Great Gatsby paper. First, the original, with teacher comments in brackets:

Tom Buchanan’s “sturdy” body, “hard” mouth and “great pack of muscle” contrast with the “rippling and fluttering” dresses of Daisy and her friend, who look if they’d just taken “a short flight around the house.” But Tom enters and shuts the windows. [What is the significance of this statement? It sounds too much like plot summary?] This foreshadows the ultimately lethal effects of Tom’s brute force, because we see how the levity is squelched: the breeze “died out” and Daisy and her friend “ballooned slowly to the floor.” [How does Tom closing a window foreshadow lethal effects?]

And now a rewrite that mostly just re-orders the words in the last two sentences:

Tom Buchanan’s “sturdy” body, “hard” mouth and “great pack of muscle” contrast with the “rippling and fluttering” dresses of Daisy and her friend, who look if they’d just taken “a short flight around the house.” But that levity is squelched when Tom enters the room and shuts the windows. In a foreshadowing of the ultimately lethal effects of Tom’s brute force, the breeze “died out” and Daisy and her friend “ballooned slowly to the floor.”

Everyone, everywhere—from the Common Core to the College Board—is touting higher-level communication skills. But few people are touting what we suspect is the most promising starting point for written communication: not “critical thinking”, not group collaboration, not open-ended reflections about open-ended prompts, not Gallery Walk or Chalk Talk, but—yes, indeed, the very thing we’re in the middle of right now–the lowly sentence.

One thought on “Waxing sententious about sentences

  1. Frederick I was the first ruler to call his lands the Holy Roman Empire. This region, however, was actually a patchwork of feudal territories. So long as Frederick remained in these territories, his forceful personality and military skills enabled him to dominate the German princes who ruled there. But whenever he left, disorder returned.

    SO MUCH BETTER !

    Like

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