In last week’s lesson,
, I extolled the virtues of the short, simple sentence. I encouraged participants to think analytically about the types of sentences they’re using, and to use them intentionally, for maximum impact.
Despite everything I said last week about wonderful, Hemingway-esque short sentences, one of the most frequent changes I make when I’m editing is combining two short sentences into a longer one. If you use too many short sentences in a row, your writing can tend to be choppy, and longer sentences can contribute to a piece’s flow.
When you combine two shorter sentences (or independent clauses
), you make a compound sentence
. There are a few ways to do this:
1. Use a conjunction
(a word like and, but, so
…or longer words like however
). You can find a list of conjunctions here
Here are some sample sentences:Chocolate is delicious, but much of it is harvested by slave labor.
I do not want to support exploitation of children so I only buy fair trade chocolate.
Since Divine Chocolate supports ethical cacao growers, it is the only brand I will buy.
A few things to notice: the conjunction can come either in the front or the middle. Each of the independent clauses in red could stand on their own as a complete, simple sentence. When they are combined, the reader is better able to see the relationship between the two clauses.
2. Use a semicolon, a dash, or a colon. Each has a specific use, although there’s some wiggle room; one writer may choose to use a dash while another would put a semicolon in the same place, and both would be perfectly fine.Use a semicolon to combine two related sentences when you don’t want to use a period and you have not used a little conjunction.Most people are unaware of the issue of chocolate slavery; their chocolate purchases support cruel business practices.
A period would have been perfectly fine after the word slavery,
or I could have used a comma and the word and
. This sentence, with the semicolon, emphasizes the relationship between consumer unawareness and chocolate slavery.You can also use a semicolon when the second independent clause begins with one of the longer conjunctions.I have loved chocolate all my life; however, my conscience will not allow me to eat chocolate these days
.Use a dash when there is a sudden change of direction between the two independent clauses, but you still want to keep them together.I was enjoying a delicious chocolate brownie—the image of a suffering child suddenly turned it into a mouthful of mud.
Here, if I’d chosen to use a comma and the word but, the shift of the sentence wouldn’t be quite so abrupt. I used the dash to signal to the reader: time to think differently.Use a colon when the first of your two independent clauses signals what’s going to be in the second independent clause.Many people are unaware of the extent of modern slavery: cacao, coffee, and sugar are often harvested using slave labor.
This lesson has been pretty heavy on grammar and light on the art
of writing. I guess I’d like to suggest again that you choose your sentence lengths with intention
, and that you even think about what sort of punctuation best works in your sentence when there are two or three “correct” choices (semicolon, dash, period…). If you’re a nonfiction writer, which one fits best with your voice? If you’re writing fiction, which best fits your narrator’s voice?
Here are some sentences from Doug Worgul’s book Thin Blue Smoke
that show how compound sentences can look in the hands of a skilled writer:The Rev. Dr. Newton was a dedicated fan and learned scholar of baseball, and it was hard to deny that his son-in-law was a talented ballplayer.
Smoke Meat is a small place, but it’s not what you would call cozy.
Though he won’t admit it to his boss, A. B. has slowly, quietly, and grudgingly accepted that the eccentricity of Smoke Meat’s menu does give the place a distinct character.
You’ll notice that none of these examples use semicolons, dashes, or colons. Those constructions aren’t really part of Worgul’s voice—I know this because not only have I read this book several times, but I was its first critic. The author is my brother, and (shameless plug here), you can order it here
. Trust me—you won’t be sorry.
The other reason I used my brother’s book is to contrast it with my own style. Unlike Doug, I love to use semicolons and dashes. Also unlike Doug, I’m not a published writer, but I went back to some of my old challenge entries and found these compound sentences:So I’m looking for felt, raffia, burlap, pine cones—I’m going for that homey, cozy look.
My eyes are drawn to a heap of discarded clothing piled against a dumpster: I can make out an old leather jacket, desert camo trousers, tattered work boots, and a brown knitted watch cap.
Early in the morning, we rattled into Savannah station; Beau’s mother sent a car to meet us there.
So…I guess what I’m saying is that you need to start working on having a specific voice—something that makes your writing identifiably yours
. You may, like Hemingway, choose short and simple sentences. Or like my brother, you may stick with the first punctuation marks we learn in school. Or like me, you may go for artsy, contrived sentences.
Sentence structure isn’t the only thing that defines your voice. It’s also word choice, and mood, and subject matter, and a host of other things. But I hope this lesson and the ones to follow will get you to think about what you want your voice to be,
and to write more intentionally, choosing each word, each phrase, each punctuation mark for the effect it will have on your reader.HOMEWORK
: Next week we’ll look at complex sentences. In the meantime, take that piece of writing you looked at last week, and count up your compound sentences. Hopefully, as you’re counting, you’ll also be taking note of the kinds of sentences you seem to prefer. We’ll be talking about that in a week or two. In the meantime:
1. Write a few different kinds of compound sentences, of the types demonstrated here.
2. Make a comment or ask a question, or tell me where I messed up.