May 21:  Yoda-Speak Day

Released on this day in 1980 was the film The Empire Strikes Back.  The second installment of the original Star War trilogy, features the debut of one of the most memorable characters in the history of science fiction: Yoda.  Although small and unimposing in appearance, Yoda is a wise and powerful Jedi master who trains Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force. Just as distinctive as Yoda’s appearance is his manner of speaking.

Yoda Empire Strikes Back.pngFrom the first words out of Yoda’s mouth when he meets Luke Skywalker, we realize something is different in his speech pattern:

Luke: I’m looking for someone.

Yoda: Looking? Found someone, you have, I would say, hmmm?

Luke: Right…

Yoda: Help you I can. Yes, mmmm.

Luke: I don’t think so. I’m looking for a great warrior. (1)

The reason Yoda’s manner of speaking seems odd to us is because it doesn’t follow the typical pattern of English syntax.  The majority of sentences in English follow the subject-verb-object word order.  In his speech, however, Yoda inverts the typical word order to verb-object-subject.  For example, instead  of saying to Luke, “You still have much to learn,” Yoda says,  “Much to learn, you still have.”

Yoda’s syntax might seem alien, but it’s not. Generations of writers, especially poets, have used the rhetorical device called anastrophe (or inversion) to rearrange the syntactic furniture for effect (Anastrophe in Greek means “turning back or about.”).  Using something other than the usual word order, makes the reader slow down a bit and spend a bit more time pondering a phrase or a clause.  Anastrophe also allows writers to add emphasis to a particular word, just as you might move your sofa to a more prominent position in your living room.

So, for example, Shakespeare might have written:

The question is: to be, or not to be?  

Instead, Shakespeare used anastrophe to alter the typical pattern, kicking off the most famous soliloquy in English with:

To be, or not to be, that is the question.

Kennedy might have said, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you”; instead, he inverted his words slightly, saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you . . . .”

Today’s Challenge:  “Try Not. Do…or Do Not.  There Is No Try”

What are some of the most famous quotations in the English language?  Brainstorm some famous quotations.  Then, try your hand at applying anastrophe by changing the word order of at least three separate quotations. You can change the word order any way you like, as long as make sense it does.

For example,

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . . -Charles Dickens

Revised with anastrophe:  

The best of times, it was; the worst of times, it was

Here are a few classic quotations:

Give me liberty or give me death. -Patrick Henry

Speak softly and carry a big stick.  -Theodore Roosevelt

Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. -Thomas Edison

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. -Mahatma Gandhi

The unexamined life is not worth living. -Socrates

Necessity is the mother of invention. -Plato

With great power comes great responsibility. -Voltaire

The pen is mightier than the sword. -Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. -John Dalberg-Acton

Quotation of the Day:  Much to learn, you still have. -Yoda

1-http://www.starwars.com/databank/yoda

May 14:  Seven Types of Sentences Day

On this day in 2004, Ronald Reagan died at his home in Bel-Air, California. Certainly much has been written about Reagan’s political career as governor of California and as the 40th president of the United States, but after his career in politics was over, Reagan accomplished something unique. On November 5, 1994, he announced to the world that he had Alzheimer’s disease, the brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills.

In a short handwritten letter, Reagan explained his desire for privacy, but also his desire to raise public awareness for the millions afflicted with Alzheimer’s. With his characteristic candor and optimism, Reagan closed the letter by saying: “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead” (1).

The disease is named after a pioneer in brain research, Alois Alzheimer, a German doctor who described the abnormal brain tissues of one of his patients in 1906.

The May 14, 2001 edition of Time magazine contained a cover story tracing the search for the causes and a potential cure for Alzheimer’s. One study of particular interest involved a group of more than 600 nuns. Scientist David Snowdown of the University of Kentucky began studying the nuns’ personal and medical histories looking for clues that might solve the mystery behind why some people get Alzheimer’s and others don’t.

Snowdown became interested in autobiographical essays that the nuns had written when they entered the order in their early 20s. He analyzed each essay for its idea density and grammatical complexity, and the results provided some interesting insights. Snowdown discovered that the nuns whose essays contained grammatically complex sentences were the same nuns who six or more decades later were free of any signs of Alzheimer’s. Conversely, those nuns who used relatively simple sentences were the same nuns who contracted Alzheimer’s. With the nuns’ early writing, Snowden was able to predict with 85% to 90% accuracy which nuns would have the disease 60 years later (2).

There is no evidence yet that teaching students to incorporate complex sentences into their writing will prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s in later years. However, one thing is certain, a healthy menu of intellectual pursuits, including writing, in your younger years doesn’t hurt. Another certainty is that good writers use a variety of sentences, and understanding the difference between simple sentences and complex sentences is a starting point for adding variety to your sentences.

Seven Major Sentence Types

Knowing the major types of sentence types allows writers to revise and edit their sentences, making them more varied and clear.  Below, the following seven types of sentences are explained: simple, complex, compound, compound-complex, balanced, cumulative, and periodic.  Notice that the definition given for each sentence is a Meta-Sentence, that is, the definition is written in the form of the sentence being defined. Each definition is followed by an additional example:

A simple sentence is a sentence with one independent clause — a group of words with a subject (noun), a predicate (verb), and a complete thought.

Example:  Bill completed his homework.

A compound sentence is a sentence with at least two independent clauses; often the two clauses are connected by a coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS), a semicolon, or a conjunctive adverb — such as “however,” “therefore,” or “then.”

Example:  Bill completed his homework, and Jane wrote a report on penguins.

A complex sentence is a sentence that contains one independent clause and at least one dependent (adjective) clause.

Example:  Bill, who owns a dog named Huck, sat studying for his math test.

OR

If a sentence has a single independent clause and at least one dependent (adverb) clause, it is a complex sentence.

Example:  Bill was angry because his dog chewed up his homework.

A compound-complex sentence is a sentence that contains two independent clauses, and it also includes at least one dependent clause.

Example:  Although there were a lot of good things to watch on television, Bill, who always gets his work done on time, sat doing his homework.

If a sentence has two parallel independent clauses, it is a balanced sentence; if it does not have two parallel independent clauses, it is not a balanced sentence.

Example: Bill read his math book; Jane wrote her English essay.

A cumulative sentence begins with an independent clause, followed by additional modifying clauses and phrases which elaborate on the main clause.

Example: Jane is a great student even though she works two jobs after school and rarely has time to do homework.

Unlike a cumulative sentence, which has its main clause at the beginning, a sentence with its main clause at the end is a periodic sentence.

Example:  Even though she works two jobs after school and rarely has time to do homework, Jane is a great student.

Today’s Challenge:  Seven Ways to Make Sentences Sing

What are examples of the different types of sentences you can write to create sentence variety?  Write one original example of each of the different sentence types:  Simple, Complex, Compound, Compound-Complex, Balanced, Cumulative, and Periodic. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  The maker of a sentence launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old Night, and is followed by those who hear him with something of wild, creative delight. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

April 21:  Complex Sentence Day

On his day in 1989, the film Field Of Dreams made its debut in American theaters.  The film stars Kevin Costner as a farmer who hears voices in his cornfield imploring him to build a baseball field.  The film is an adaptation of a magical realist novel, Shoeless Joe by Canadian author W. P. Kinsella.  The book and film form the perfect mix of sentimental themes of fantasy, baseball, and family.

The most memorable line of the film — a line which has become one of the most memorable movie lines of all time — comes from the voice that Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, hears in his cornfield.  The voice says, “If you build it, he will come.”

This line, along with the film’s tagline “If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true,” are textbook examples of complex sentences.

Unlike a simple sentence, which features a single independent clause, or a compound sentence that features two independent clauses, a complex sentence features an independent clause and at least one dependent clause (also known as a subordinate clause).  

For example, the line that farmer Kinsella hears in his cornfield begins with a dependent clause, a clause that cannot stand alone:

If you build it

To complete the sentence, and to make it a complete complex sentence, the independent clause is added at the end.

If you build it, he will come.

Complex sentences are an essential element of any effective writer’s repertoire because they not only provide sentence variety, but they also combine ideas logically, showing a reader the relationship between two ideas.  For example, notice the differences between the sentences below:

Because he loves baseball, Bill plays every day.

Although he loves baseball, Bill plays tennis in the spring.

After he plays baseball, Bill always cleans his cleats.

If Bill’s team wins their baseball game, they will be in the playoffs.

Each of the sentences is complex, beginning with a dependent clause; however, in each sentence, the logical relationship between the clauses is different.  In the first, the relationship is cause and effect; in the second, it’s contrast; in the third, it’s time; and in the fourth, it’s conditional.

The words that single the relationship and that make the clauses dependent are called subordinating conjunctions.  

Read the examples below to see the different ways that subordinating conjunctions connect ideas:

Cause and Effect (or Reasons): because, since, so that

Because he loves to read, Bill is always carrying a book.

Contrast (or Concession): although, even though, though, while, whereas

Although he loves to write, Bill’s favorite pastime is reading.

Time: before, after, as, once, since, while, when, whenever

After Bill gets home from school, he sits down and reads the newspaper.

Condition:  if, once, unless

If Bill gets money for his birthday, he plans to buy some new books.

Use the mnemonic “A WHITE BUS” to remember the major subordinate conjunctions:

A White Bus

After, although, as

WHen, which, who, where, while

If, in order that

That, though

Even though

Before, because

Until, unless

Since, so that

Today’s Challenge:  If You Make a Parallel Product Pitch, It Will Sell

What are some products that you would personally endorse?  Imagine you work for an advertising agency.  Brainstorm some possible products that you might try to sell with a strong sales pitch.  Select one specific product, and construct a topic sentence for a 60-second sales pitch that features three parallel dependent clauses.  Notice, for example, how the following two topic sentences each feature parallel dependent clauses:

If you want the best value, if you want the highest quality, and if you want the best tasting cheese, buy Johnson’s Cheddar.

Boston Bacon is the best because it melts in your mouth, because it’s low fat, and because it goes well with any meal.

Writing three-pronged parallel complex sentence like these is a great skill to practice for effective writing.  These sentences can be used as a thesis statement for an essay, or as a concluding sentence for a paragraph or essay.  Notice that in the two example sentences above, the three parallel dependent clauses may come before or after the independent clause.

Once you have constructed your topic sentence, write the rest of your pitch by elaborating on the points in your topic sentence. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. -Elmore Leonard

 

 

 

 

March 4:  National Grammar Day

Today is National Grammar Day, which was established in 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG). On this day, it is imperative that we all “March forth!” and honor the conventions of English that help us all communicate more clearly.

Brockenbrough founded National Grammar Day to raise awareness of language, to show why it matters, and to change some of the negative attitudes that people have about grammar:

For me, the goal is to get people to think about language and why being careful with it matters . . . . There was this idea out there that speaking well and knowing what words mean and how they work was somehow elite and untrustworthy. This is ridiculous. You’d never hear anyone complain that a doctor knows too darn much about brain surgery or their mechanic is too careful when it comes to fixing cars. (1)

Assert yourself on National Grammar Day.  Craft sentences with confidence. Punctuate with purpose, and compose confidently. March forth, and write imperative sentences — the kind of sentence that command, that begin with a verb, and that have implied subjects (“You” march forth.)

Today’s Challenge:  Write Now

What are some examples of two-word imperative sentences, such as “March forth.”?  Brainstorm a list of verbs from A to Z.  Then try to match up each of your verbs with a second word that will form a two-word imperative sentences.

Examples:

Ask nicely.  Be positive.  Carpe diem.  Don’t touch.  Exercise cognitively.  Floss daily.  Golf daily.  Help me.  Just sing.  Keep calm.  Listen carefully.  Make cookies.  Never whine. Offer hope.  Please shower.  Quiz often.  Read daily. Sing loudly.  Think big.  Use caution.  Visit Europe.  Work hard.  X-ray injuries. Yelp barbarically.  Zip it.

(Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative. -H.G. Wells

1- “A Toast to National Grammar Day.

 

 

February 26: Kernel Sentence Day

On this 26th day of the second month it makes sense to use the most fundamental tool of literacy, the 26 letters of the alphabet, to create the most fundamental construction of English syntax, the two-word kernel sentence.

In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King asks readers to explore this challenge by combining subjects and predicates to form the most basic simple sentences:

Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence.  It never fails.  Rocks explode.  Jane transmits.  Mountains float.  These are all perfect sentences.  Many such thoughts make little rational sense, but even the stranger ones (Plums deify!) have a kind of poetic weight that’s nice.  Simple sentences provide a path you can follow in the tangles of rhetoric – all those restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, those modifying phrases, those appositives and compound-complex sentences.  If you start to freak out at the sight of such unmapped territory (unmapped by you, at least), just remind yourself that rocks explode, Jane transmits, mountains float, and plums deify.”

As King confirms the essential core elements of each English sentence is its kernel – the subject-noun and predicate-verb.  

Today’s Challenge:  Alliterative Abecedarian

What are some possible subjects (nouns) of sentences and some possible predicates (verbs)?   Brainstorm a list of subjects, alphabetically from A to Z.  Then, do the same thing with predicates, listing verbs from A to Z.  Finally, follow Stephen King’s advice and combine your subjects and predicates to form two-word alliterative kernel sentences, like the following examples:

Ants annihilate.

Buses bypass.

Cats caterwaul.

Dandruff defaces.

Ears eavesdrop.

Flamingos flock.

Quotation of the Day:  The way you live your day is a sentence in the story of your life. Each day you make the choice whether the sentence ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. -Steve Maraboli

 

December 30: Subordinating Conjunction Day 

Today is the birthday of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), England’s master storyteller and poet.  Kipling was British, but he lived many years in India where he was born.  Known especially for his short stories and his popular work of fiction The Jungle Book (1894), Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 when he was just 42 years old.  He was the first English language writer to win the prize, and he was also the youngest ever to win the prize

In addition to his well-known fiction, Kipling was also a poet. In 1910, he published the poem “If,” which remains today one of the best known poems ever written in English.  

Written in the voice of a father giving advice to his son, the four-stanzas of the poem make up a single 283-word sentence. More specifically, the single sentence is a complex sentence, constructed in the form of a periodic sentence, a sentence that begins with subordinate phrases or clauses, and ends with the main clause.  In the case of Kipling’s poem “If,” he crafts twelve subordinate clauses, each beginning with the subordinating conjunction “if,” and ends with an independent clause.  Each of the “if” clauses provides conditions or prerequisites for manhood.  The speaker in the poem, the father, concludes with a statement, saying in effect, by making the choice to do these things, you will be a man and the world will be yours.

If

If you can keep your head when all about you   

    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

    But make allowance for their doubting too;   

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   

    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

    And treat those two impostors just the same;   

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

    And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

    If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

The structure of Kipling’s poem demonstrates the power of the periodic sentence.  Certainly no one is writing 200-word sentences these days; however, using a periodic structure that begins with a string of subordinate ideas is a nice technique for drawing your reader in and building dramatic tension.  The periodic structure also allows a writer to capitalize on the rhythm created by parallel structure and the anticipation created by compounding details (1).

Subordination is a fundamental aspect of writing that is used for more than just periodic sentences.  Subordination in syntax relates to a method of constructing sentences where some of the ideas in a sentence are dependent on other parts.

For example, take the following two sentences:

Bill loves to read.  Bill is always carrying a book.

To show a logical relationship between these two ideas and combine them into a single sentence, we can use a subordinating conjunction (because) to make one idea subordinate to the other:

Because he loves to read, Bill is always carrying a book.

Instead of two simple sentences, we now have a single complex sentence, a sentence with one independent clause and at least one dependent clause.  In the sentence about Bill, the clause “Because he loves to read” is dependent because it cannot stand alone; it needs the independent clause “Bill is always carrying a book” in order to form a complete thought.

Because subordination is such an effective method for logically combining ideas, it makes sense for writers to recognize subordinating conjunctions, the words that signal the logical connections between ideas.

The following are the most frequently used subordinating conjunctions:

after, although, as, before, because, even though, if, since, so that, unless, until, when, while

These words signal four basic logical relationships.  Read the examples below to see the different ways that subordinating conjunctions connect ideas:

Cause and Effect (or Reasons): because, since, so that

Because he loves to read, Bill is always carrying a book.

Contrast (or Concession): although, even though, though, while, whereas

Although he loves to write, Bill’s favorite pastime is reading.

Time:before, after, as, once, since, while, when, whenever

After Bill gets home from school, he sits down and reads the newspaper.

Condition:  if, once, unless

If Bill gets money for his birthday, he plans to buy some new books.

Today’s Challenge:  WIIFM

What is a specific skill you have or an activity you participate in that you would be willing to promote for the general public? What makes this skill or activity so worthwhile?  Use subordination to write the introduction to a “how to” speech that provides direction on how to achieve something desirable. Begin with “if” clauses that give your audience the WIIFM, or “What’s in it for me.”  Structure your subordinate clauses using parallel structure to give your sentence clarity and rhythm. Crafting a periodic sentences using this structure will build your audience’s interest and anticipation to learn more about your topic.

Possible Topics:

-Join a specific organization or club

-Learn a specific skill or enhance a talent, such as singing, dancing, or barbecuing

-Take a specific class or course of study

-Participate in a new type of pastime, such as hang gliding, stamp collecting, or origami

-Achieve a lifelong goal, such as graduating college, climbing a mountain, or running a marathon

-Practice a good habit that will improve your life, such as avoiding procrastination, practicing meditation, or eating right

Notice how the 83-word sentence below uses parallelism and the “if-then” structure to build audience anticipation:

If you want to be the life of the party, if you want to impress strangers on the street and make money while you’re doing it, if you want to learn a life-long skill that will keep you active and provide you with mental stimulation, if you want to improve both your ability to persevere and your hand-eye coordination, and if you want a form of mediation that won’t allow you to fall asleep, then learning to juggle is the way to go.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Forsyth, Mark.  The Elements of Eloquence.  London:  Icon Books, 2013:  47.

December 11: Predicate Adjective Day


On this day in 1987, the film Wall Street opened in theaters. The film follows an ambitious young Wall Street broker named Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen, and a rich corporate raider named Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, who won the Oscar for best actor in the role.  

In one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, Gordon addresses a stockholders’ meeting of Teldar Paper, a company he is planning to take over.  In the speech, Gordon attempts to change the audience’s perception of him from corporate raider to company savior by targeting the wastefulness of the company’s management.  The core of his message is that“greed is good,” and that he is a liberator rather than a destroyer of companies (1).

The essence of Gordon’s claim in his speech is the sentence, “Greed is good.”  Syntactically speaking, this sentence is a classic example of a predicate adjective, a type of sentence in which a subject is linked with an adjective.  With predicate adjectives, a linking verb acts as a kind of equal sign to connect the subject and the adjective, as in Greed = good. Most of the time linking verbs are forms of the verb to be (am, is, are, was, were, will be); however, there are other verbs that also serve to link the subject and the adjective, such as the verbs appear, become, feel, look, sound, and taste.

Here are some other examples of predicate adjectives:

Life is not fair.

Love is blind.

The students were angry.

The students look confused.

Infanticide is rampant among prairie dogs.

Today’s Challenge: Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, Predicate Adjectives Are Nothing New

One caveat for using predicate adjectives is to watch out for making unsupported subjective claims.  For example, notice that in addition to stating his claim that “greed is good,” Gordon Gekko also varies his syntax and supplies additional evidence and explanation to support his claim.  Sometimes writers or speakers think that stating something with authority, such as “This is boring,” makes it true.  On the contrary, the validity of any stated claim rests on its backing, its support, and its explanation.

What is a claim that you could state in the form of a predicate adjective, and how would you support it?

Use the list of subjective adjectives below to construct a claim about a topic you feel strongly about:

good, bad, boring, exciting, beautiful, ugly, awesome, awful, nice

Make sure that your claim is a predicate adjective and that it is an opinion, not a fact.  For example, if you say,“The house is red,” you would be stating a fact.  In contrast, if you say, “The house is ugly,” that’s an opinion.  Follow up your claim with specific details that support your claim.  Make sure to vary your syntax and go beyond just linking verbs that state what “is.” (Common Core Writing 1 -Argument)  

1-American Rhetoric. Movie Speech Wall Street (1987). http://www.americanrhetoric.com/MovieSpeeches/moviespeechwallstreet.html.

December 6:  Passive Voice Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

On this day in 1986, President Ronald Reagan presented a radio address to the nation.  His subject was a political scandal called the Iran-Contra Affair, where members of Reagan’s administration engaged in a secret arms deal in an attempt to obtain the release of American hostages.  Without approval or even the knowledge of the U.S. Congress, Reagan administration officials sold weapons to Iran and then used the profits from the sale to fund rebel forces in Nicaragua.

When a Lebanese newspaper published a report detailing the secret deal in November 1986, President Reagan was forced to address the matter publicly:

In the process of providing his explanation to the American people, Reagan used a classic framing device, the evasive maneuver known as passive voice:

And while we are still seeking all the facts, it’s obvious that the execution of these policies was flawed and mistakes were made [emphasis added] (1).

Use of the passive voice puts the object of the sentence “mistakes” up front and makes the doer of the action magically disappear.  Use of the passive voice allows the speaker to subtly evade admitting direct responsibility.  Notice the difference in the two sentences below:

Active Voice:  I made a mistake.

Passive Voice:  Mistakes were made.

Reagan was certainly not the first president to make this kind of unapologetic apology.  Use of this artful dodge dates back to the Ulysses S. Grant administration.  In a report to Congress in 1876, Grant acknowledged his administration’s scandals, saying “mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit it” (2).

For most writers, understanding the difference between active and passive voice has nothing to do with political rhetoric. Instead, the difference relates to making sure that your sentences are as clear, concise, and active as possible.

Just as the key to keeping your car running well is taking care of its engine, the key to successful sentences is taking care of the engine of the sentence:  the verb.  Notice the difference in the following two sentences:

Passive Sentence:  The book was read by Mary.

Active Sentence:  Mary read the book.

Both sentences say the same thing.  The active sentence, however, says it in fewer words.  Also, the active sentence makes Mary the doer of the action.  In contrast, the passive sentence puts the object up front which requires the addition of two weak and unnecessary words:  “was” and “by.”

Passive voice is technically not a grammar error; instead, it is a style choice.  There are times when you might want to focus on the object rather than the doer of the action.  Be aware, however, that in most cases putting the doer up front and eliminating unnecessary words will make your writing more clear and concise.

As exemplified by the sentence about Mary above, be on the lookout for forms of “to be.”  We use this verb more than any other verb in English, but don’t overuse it.  “To be” is a state of being verb.  When you use forms of “to be” as the engine of your sentence, the sentence doesn’t get very far:

Bill was happy.

In contrast, when you employ active verbs, your sentences have more motion, which creates a better picture for the reader:

Bill smiled broadly and threw his head back as he laughed.

Today’s Challenge:  Mistakes Were Corrected

What is the best way to begin a story?  Select one of the passive sentences below.  Transform the sentence from passive voice to active voice, and expand the sentence into an opening paragraph of a short story.  As you revise, consider the subject of your sentence. Whenever possible make people the subjects of your sentences, the doers of the action; this will add more life and human interest to your writing.

The groceries were purchased.

The cake was eaten.

The sun was watched.

The test was taken.

The book was thrown.

The poem was written.

The team was booed.

The birthday was celebrated.

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-  Reagan, Ronald. Radio Address to the Nation on the Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy. 6 Dec. 1986. The American Presidency Project.  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=36788.

2-Safire, William.  Safire’s Political Dictionary.  Oxford University Press, 2008:  431.

November 15:  Balanced Sentence Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

On this day in 1859, the final installment of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities was published.  As with most of Dickens’ novels, A Tale of Two Cities was published in serial form.  Weekly installments of the novel began in April 1859 and the final installment was issued on November 15, 1859.

Dickens (1812-1870), the author of such classic works at Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and A Christmas Carol, was the most popular novelist of his time, and A Tale of Two Cities is the single greatest selling book of any genre with more than 200 million copies sold (1).

The book is a historical novel, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution.  It’s appropriate that in a novel with two settings, the author would use the scheme called “balance.”  When writing about two or more similar ideas, writers balance the ideas by stating them in the same grammatical form using parallel structure, as in “United we stand, divided we fall.”  You can see and hear this balance in the famous opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities.  Notice that although Dickens is introducing contrasting ideas (best and worst, wisdom and foolishness), the clauses of the sentence follow the same grammatical structure to create balance:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . . .  

Using parallelism, anaphora, and antithesis, Dicken’s creates a long sentence that is nevertheless easy to follow because of its balanced structure.  The asymmetry of the contrasting ideas (antithesis) is brought back into balance by the symmetry of the parallel structure.

Just as Dickens opened his novel with a balanced sentence, he comes full circle in the final sentence of his novel, using a perfectly balanced sentence to express the final thoughts of one the story’s major characters, Sydney Carton:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known (2).

Noticed how the two sides of the sentence, separated by the semicolon, are balanced by repetition and parallel structure.

Just as with all rhetorical or stylistic devices, you don’t want to overuse balanced sentences; however, it is a powerful club to have in your rhetorical golf bag.

Today’s Challenge:  Claim A Contrast

What claim would you make using two contrasting ideas, such as love/hate or success/failure, in the same sentence? Brainstorm a list of some contrasting ideas, such as, joy/sorrow, freedom/slavery, war/peace.  Then, write a balanced sentence that makes a claim based on the differences in the two topics.

For example, the following balanced sentence makes a claim about the contrasting ideas logic and creativity:

Logic teaches us about the world; creativity teaches us about ourselves.

Notice how the two independent clauses of the compound sentence are balanced by parallelism.

Once you have your own balanced sentence, use it as your topic sentence for a paragraph that supports your claim using contrast, details, examples, evidence, and explanation. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Mitchell, David. David Mitchell on Historical Fiction. The Telegraph 8 May 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/7685510/David-Mitchell-on-Historical-Fiction.html.

2-Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. 1859. Public Domain.

November 14:  Sentence Variety Day

On this day in 1944, writing instructor Gary Provost was born. Provost earned his living as a freelance writer, authoring over 1,000 stories and articles.  He also wrote books in a variety of genres, including young adult novels, true crime books, and books about writing.

In 1985, Provost published a comprehensive guide for writers called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.  In the book Provost covered a range of topics, from overcoming writer’s block to avoiding punctuation errors.  But one specific area he emphasizes is sentence variety (1).

Read the following paragraph out loud to both see and hear the point:

Sentences shouldn’t all be the same length. Seven-word sentences will surely bore your reader.  Here is another super soporific seven-word sentence. Stringing them one after another is monotonous.  Things change, however, when you start writing sentences that vary in length.  Listen up.  Can you hear the difference?  When you write with sentences of varied length, your writing will sound more like natural spoken language.  Try it yourself.  Write some long sentences, some medium, and some short.  Combine clauses. Rearrange phrases.  Most importantly, read your sentences out loud.  Use your ears as well as your eyes to read, listening for pleasing rhythms.  Make your sentences sing.

Good writing has the rhythm and resonance of spoken language.  Writers can’t write exactly like they talk.  After all, much of our spoken language relies on nonverbal cues. Writers can, however, imitate one universal trait of spoken language: variety in sentence length – some long, some medium, and some short.  As you revise your writing, read it aloud.  When your sentences begin to sound monotonous, check for variety in the length of your sentences, as well as for variety in the type of sentences you write.

Today’s Challenge:  Hold Your Ear Up to This Paragraph

What would you say is the secret to making written sentences sound as natural as spoken sentences?  The paragraph below does not have much variety in sentence lengths.  Read the paragraph aloud, and listen to where it could be improved. Then, revise the paragraph by breaking up or combining sentences as needed.  You may eliminate any unnecessary words, but try not to eliminate any of the paragraph’s key ideas:

The words in a sentence are like Lego building blocks.  The English sentence is made up of various parts.  These parts snap together like Legos of logic.  You can construct solid, syntactical structures to make sentences.  English words, phrases, and clauses come in multiple colors and forms.  The sentence builder can use them to construct many creations. Some of these creations are small, some are medium, and some are large. There’s no end to the fun you can have building sentences.

As you complete your revision, read it aloud.  When you have finished, write down the number of words in each sentence. Check the range of the number of words in each of your sentences.  Do you have some that are long, some that are medium, and some that are short?  Use this strategy on your own paragraphs as a method of revision.  Read aloud.  Revise. And try to capture the magic of the spoken word in your sentences. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1-Provost, Gary.  100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.  New York:  New American Library, 1985:  60-61.