Tag Archives: modern English

A Challenge for You: Describe these Sentences.

How would you describe the sentences in italics below?

A.  What kind of sentences are they?  They are obviously not simple subject-verb constructions or  what are commonly called compound or complex –or even compound-complex sentences.

B.  Do they work for you?  Do you find them effective, easy to follow, descriptive, and maybe even at times evocative?

C.  Are they grammatically correct?

1.  A pungent odor of dried coriander and bay leaves permeated the room; the scent mixed with garlic, a hint of bread, and darker overtones.

2.  Roman guards stood equally spaced at intervals along the wall, silhouetted against barrels of fire and the considerable light of the almost-full moon now setting on the horizon.

3.  The Lower City rose to her left, white boxes with dark windows and door slits, tiered row upon row.

4.  Sara moved through the street of the Lower City, holding an infrared flashlight that pulsed invisibly, something only Benjamin could see with the night vision goggles.

The quotations in italics above are from Amy Deardon’s novel  A Lever Long Enough (©2009, availabe at Amazon.com, including for Kindle), a novel I recommend. They were picked at random.

Here are my answers:

A.  They are called cumulative or loose sentences.  I call the segments added onto the main clauses “add-ons”  See more in the post here:  http://keystowriting.com/2011/11/

B. Yes. Yes.

C.  Yes.

Modern English constantly transcends what is taught in many books on writing–certainly many books on grammar.

Contemporary published writers, including best-selling ones, use the types of phrases illustrated in the italicized quotations above constantly in their writing. And effectively too. Often with lyrical beauty approaching poetry and with descriptive power.

Are they part of your writing arsenal?

Recommended additional reading:






Best books and courses:

Notes Toward a Modern Rhethoric  by Frances Crhistensen

A Modern Rhetoric by Frances Christensen and Bonniejean Christensen

Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon, Ph.D., University of Iowa, 24-part lecture series, http://www.thegreatcourses.com by The Teaching Company.



Write Powerfully Like the Pros

lEARN VERSATILE PHRASES YOU CAN ADD into sentences making them both reader-friendly and a pleasure to read.

PART TWO IN THE “Vital Keys to the Modern English Sentence” SERIES

Read this sentence out loud, if you will…

In the morning we went out into a new world, a glistening crystal and white world, each skeleton tree, each leafless bush, even the heavy, drooping power lines sheathed in icy crystal.
           (from Notes Toward A New rhetoric  by Francis Christensen, page 14)
Lovely, isn’t it?  It’s one of my all time favorite sentences.  I can just see the beauty and feel cold. It’s a pleasure to read, so simple and clear.
The Loose Sentence
In books on grammar and rhetoric, that example sentence above is called a loose sentence. It’s loose because  those phrases added on after the main clause are not locked on. They are more like a dance than a military march.
AKA Cumulative Sentence
Savvy writing treachers also call this type of sentence a cumulative sentence because it grows by addition.
Start with addition not subtraction
Writing is not just subtraction as in cutting out unnecessary words and sentences when you edit.  Editing is super-important.  But first you must put words, clauses, phrases, sentences and paragraphs down on the page- so that you have something to work with.
Freight cars heavy with meaning
In my previous post on the modern English sentence (http://keystowriting.com/2011/11/),  I pointed out that it’s like a train.  The main clause is the engine, and the freight cars that follow are loaded with specific meaning.  But those freight cars can show up in a considerable variety.
So stay with me while I get slightly more technical and describe below some of those versatile  phrases…

I’ll keep my examples short so that we can focus on each individual add-on.

The most common is perhaps the participle phrase

Judy smiled enchantingly, twisting her ponytail with her fingers.

Above, Ttisting is a present participle. Add ing to the verb twist, and you have a  participle.

Notice how  twisting her ponytail with her fingers adds descriptive detail to the words smiled and enchantingly.  I can better picture Judy in my mind.

Nouns work well too

Judy’s smile was enchanting, an invitation to dance.

The noun invitation  and the words included next to it also describe what Joan’s smile was like.  But the phrase an invitation to dance is built around the noun invitation.  Phrases built on nouns and frequent in both fiction and nonfiction writings.

Nominative Absolutes are “people” too
This is a verbal phrase, usually containing a participle, but this time with a subject.  Two examples…

She smiled, her palms turned upward in resignation. (past participle)

She smiled, her palms turning upward in resignation. (present participle)

A nominative absolute, in spite of its formidable title, is a useful writing device.  It’s just like the participle phrase I described above with one exception: it has a subject.

In both examples above, her palms is the subject of the phrase.  Her palms is the subject, and turned/turning are participles. The nominative absolute itself is almost, but definitely not quite, a clause or sentence. I could have written:

She smiled. Then she turned her palms upward…

That would have been two sentences. Two main clauses. Nominative absolutes are most common in fiction but can be effective in nonfiction too.

Prepositional Phrases are common too
Very frequent in writing. When they become elaborate, it is often best to punctuate them with commas, or maybe even occasionally dashes.

A.  He ran, punching the air with his fists, down the dirt trail and around a bend, soon out of sight.

The main clause is, of course, He ran. As underlined above, there are three prepositional phrases, and the last is introduced by the adverb soon.

(Notice, too, the vivid participial phrase punching the air with his fists.)

I could have included all that information in separate and small sentences:

B.  He ran full out. His fists punched the air. He dashed down the dirt trail. Soon he was around a bend.  And then he was out of sight.

This second version is not necessarily bad. But do you see how more efficient and perhaps effective too the original version A above is?

Phrases built on Adverbs

She smiled shyly and enticingly.

The two adverbs above add to what the author meant by smiled.

Phrases built on Adjectives

Bald Mountain looked formidable, tall and steep.

Most but not all
These are the most of  common add-ons. Certainly there are others.

But for  now compare the two following segments.

1. He was tired. Exhausted really. His sat slumped in the chair. His arms hung limply down at the sides. They were pale white and dead-looking.

2. He was tired, exausted really, slumped in his chair, his hands hanging limply at the sides, pale-white and looking dead.

Which is better?
Is either a bad piece of writing? Well, I hope not since I wrote them! But is number 1 above better than number 2? Not necessarily. It depends on a number of things but primarily the effect you want to create with your writing.

Perhaps the best point to make here is that I think that it’s a good idea to know  your options.  Better yet: practice them so that they come readily to mind when you’re writing.

Now let’s re-visit that first example sentence I started with above, this time naming the phrases:

In the morning we went out into a new world (main clause),

a glistening crystal and white world (noun phrase built on world),

each skeleton tree (noun phrase),

each leafless bush (noun phrase),

even the heavy, drooping power lines sheathed in icy crystal (nominative absolute built on the past participle sheathed)

Suggested Exercises
When you read, be alert for these types of additions.  Check how well they work.  Also, if you will practice this modern sentence, with its various possible additions, you will soon discover how versatile and effective they can be.

The modern English sentence makes for some powerful writing.

Writing that Strikes like Lightning and Sings like Song

Courtesy j_arred @Flickr


The “Modern” English Sentence, Part III

Lightning hits hard and quickly
One word in the right place can hit hard. Brief sentences and sentence fragments punctuated as sentences are often effective.  You can surprise and delight your reader with unexpected punchy pieces of writing. But always interspersed with longer sentences for variety, to avoid monotony and choppiness.

Rhythm is the key
A song can have several aspects like melody, rhythm and harmony.  But rhythm is, I think, the most easily recognized and utilized in spoken and written language. So in this piece let’s focus on rhythm.

Life is rhythm
The type of rhythm I am talking about has a lot to do with a conversation style.  It’s resembles the way we talk.

This rhythmic aspect of writing is significant. Life is rhythm and movement, the beat of your heart, the moments of time, the surge of surf on the beach.  Paying attention to the rhythm of your words can add power to your writing. It can make it memorable too.

Eloquence is often enhanced by the rhythm of a conversational style
Think about popular songs or even jazz.  Much of the charm comes from syncopation.  The beats and the off-beats.  The best songs and also jazz mimic the way we talk.  Recall Stevie Wonder’s awesome song and read aloud its first four lines below.  And as you do, pay attention to the rhythm of the words.

You Are The Sunshine Of My Life
That’s Why I’ll Always Stay Around
You Are The Apple Of My Eye
Forever You’ll Stay In My Heart

 Comedians and Lyricists
How popular would a comedian be if he spoke like a formal essay?  How popular would a song writer be if she wrote her lyrics that way?

Formal writing has a place, for example in scholarly pieces and scientific research, but the majority of writing these days is conversational in style.  Whether we’re talking copywriting, magazine articles, or blog writing–certainly fiction too.

 Aim for a Conversational Style
We speak well because we’re fluent in our native tongue.  Most people have occasional moments in conversation that  sparkle with bits of genius.  Some speak better than they write.  It comes from speaking our language and hearing it daily, thousands upon thousands, even millions of times.  We’re fluent in other words.

That’s why a number of  writers and also writing teachers advise us when we are writing—and especially when we are having a tough time getting our meaning clear–to imagine that we are explaining our ideas or telling a story to a friend.

Make it conversational but clean it up
Now conversation is messy and inefficient and often not coherent—even with its “bits of occasional genius.”  I don’t advocate writing exactly the way you talk.  You need to clean it up. Edit it.

By the way, one key rhythmic technique is to set up a steady beat that is changed abruptly.  For example…

She came on time, she was well-dressed, but she just wasn’t well-prepared.

So my point is to work at being actively aware of the rhythm of your words.

7  Practical suggestions:
1.  Read Shakespeare in the original, even Chaucerout loud–admittedly dated but masters of English—and also contemporary writers, any writers you find particularly effective.  And listen while you are reading.   Try poetry too, especially poetry that was written with a recognizable meter to it.

2.  Listen to music with a strong beat, including jazz if you wish. Pay attention to its rhythms.  Perhaps even imagine yourself a drummer in the band and get into the rhythm by tapping it onto something handy (probably best not your pet).

3.   Listen more carefully to TV ads. Writers are paid to come up with catchy phrases, words that dance and delight the ear.  Words designed to influence you.

4.  Get radical.  Take up (or revisit) a musical instrument.  Learn to play songs and get the rhythms right.  Or simply memorize songs you especially like.

5.  When you read and come across a sentence or phrase you like, examine it closely.  What is it about it that caught your attention?  Imitate that sentence, using your own words and ideas—not to become a clone of Shakespeare or Chaucer or a best-selling writer, say, but to record those potential rhythms into your subconscious.

6.  How-to-write instruction often advises us not to settle for the first words that occur. Experiment. Try different combinations.  Then choose the best.

7.  And a super key: For sure, work at being actively aware of the rhythm of your words when you write and rewrite.   Listen to your words.  If it helps, read them aloud.

It takes practice
The goal I am implying here is challenging.   But working toward it can augment our writing skills and effectiveness.  It’s not slam-dunk easy.  Very often I find I cannot write lyrically or with thundering impact just because I intend to. Usually, I have to hit upon it.  It’s really rather heavily intuitive.

Be clear, write simply, but be eloquent too
The results are well worth it.  The plain style is of course a good one, but some eloquence doesn’t hurt.

Please feel free to comment:
When you reach for the music and to write with impact, how do you go about it?  What are your “tricks of the trade”?

Related reading:




Some Vital Keys to the Modern English Sentence

Part I   Let’s hear it for the occasional long sentence!

It’s a beauty
The modern English sentence is beautiful and elegant because it flows they way we think. It is more intuitive than being confined to merely the simple, complex, compound, and compound-complex sentence options of yesteryear. And it’s more powerful.

It’s like a train
The modern English sentence I’m talking about resembles a train. You have the engine at the front, the main clause.

The officer marched into the village.

But you can also add a number of cars following that engine–in fact, quite a good idea.  And these freight cars carry the goods–in many contemporary sentences that’s where much of the meaning is communicated. Now let’s add to the above example sentence:

The officer marched into the village, his AK-47 at the ready pointing forward, his soldiers following close behind, a small but formidable combat unit.

Permit me to diagram that sentence above it so its structure is more obvious:

The officer marched into the village,
              His AK-47 at the ready pointing forward,
                      His soldiers close behind,
                               A small but formidable combat unit.

It also works with Non-fiction:
The above sentence reads like fiction, doesn’t it? Actually, it is fiction. and it’s starting to get a bit long, but is it clear? I think so.

So now let’s look at a non-fiction sentence. I’ll improvise on some of my wiring above:

The modern English sentence is like a train: It has its engine, and it has its freight cars, trailing behind, adding valuable cargo (meaning), often essential actually and clarifying.

Three more brief examples…
This time from Ali Luke’s just-published novel Lycopolis (available in a Kindle edition and soon as a paperback):

Brandon watched him, trying to fathom him out. [Added participial phrase. Kindle edition, location 1392]

Brandon especially enjoyed puzzles, with things to solve. (Added prepositional phrase. Again, Kindle location 1392]

Brandon still disliked being alone in the silence – though he could sleep if he whispered strings of primes into the darkness, backwards and forwards, until the room buzzed with numbers. [The added backwards and forwards is a couple of adverbs, call it an “adverb cluster”; and until the room… is an added adverbial clause. Kindle edition: at location 1353-1354]

(More on the types of additions in my soon-coming blog on this topic, Part II.)

Don’t be too choppy
Modern style–influenced I suspect by copywriting techniques, TV ad video clips addressing a rather short, contemporary attention span–with its frequent very short phrases and even single words punctuated as sentences–can easily get a bit choppy unless we writers take care to include variety in the lengths of our sentences.

The advantages:
Learning this style can be freeing, providing you with formidable weapons for your writing-style arsenal. It can also provide you skill for adding rich texture and meaning into your sentences when you wish to.

Faulkner did it
Faulkner could write sentences that go for a whole page before adding that period. Yet they were in fact simple sentences (by definition, that is not compound or complex or even compound-complex–just a main clause with many add-ons), and all of them perfectly clear and reader-friendly. So could Thomas Wolfe. Even Hemingway wrote sentences like the one I used as an illustration above.

A challenge for you…
Roy Peter Clark in his fine, fairly recent book Writing Tools, 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, says this:

Until the writer tries to master the long sentence, she is not writer at all, for while length makes a bad sentence worse, it can make a good sentence better. (Page 36)

Augment your versatility.
Master the long sentence as well as the modern chopped up sentence (and I’m not knocking sentence fragments punctuated as sentences–I use them myself!).

A couple of Promises…
It takes a bit of practice, but if you learn to write this way (assuming you haven’t already!), I promise you this: it can be a freeing experience. I think you will find that your writing sings at times like poetry. And I also think you will find that  your efforts at writing such sentences can actually generate ideas and enable you to pack those sentences with vivid details and clarifying illustrations, and much much more-at will.

Number 2 Challenge for you…
When you read, be alert for this sentence type (called by some “the loose sentence” in contrast to tight, formal ones). See how often it appears and how effectively it works.

Suggested Further Reading:
Online Resource:

Note– Both of the two following books are out of print and often hard to find but ‘worth their weight in gold.’

Notes Toward A New Rhetoric, 6 Essays for Teachers by Francis Christensen (Harper and Row, 1967)

A Modern Rhetoric by Francis Christensen (Harper and Row, 1976)– Professor Christensen’s master work.

Writing Tools, 50 Essential Strategies for every Writer by Roy Peter Clark ((Little, Brown and Company, 2006)

Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner (Oxford University Press, 3rd Ed., 2009)

100 Ways to Improve your Writing by Gary Provost (Signet, 1985)