Marshalling the Sentence - Part 1

By Dr Simon J. Tilbury

We all know what a sentence is and how to use it, right? It’s one of the basic building blocks of writing that we all learn to use from an early age. Perhaps this is why it is also one of the areas of writing technique that we neglect the most. We think we mastered it a long time ago, treating it as a ‘second nature’ skill that can be left to happen on its own. But in taking it for granted we put the clarity of our message at risk, we pay no attention to the logic and rhythm of our thought, and we miss out on the toybox of special effects the sentence has to offer.

There are lots of technical descriptions of the sentence out there, but my approach here is, more or less, practical and meaning-centred. I am assuming that you have the basics of grammar and syntax, and want to help you make the most of turning these into effective written sentences.

So, what is a sentence? It is the main unit of expression in most languages, not just English. It is a self-contained packet of thought, a singular idea made up – in most but not all cases – of constituent parts. That packet may express a simple idea or a complex, multi-faceted one. When those parts are fully formed, given their rightful place and dressed with correct (or optimum) punctuation, the sentence will provide a clear expression of pretty much anything you like: a statement, a question, a command or an exclamation. Whatever it is, if it is composed well it will pass along your thought, idea, descriptive part of a scene or piece of information with ease.

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Knowing the rules – and where to bend or ignore them – gives you the power to create a strong authorial voice. So, here are a few essential points you should always keep in mind, whatever you are writing.

Knowing what and how much to put in a sentence, how to order each part of it, how to guide the reader through the sentence by means of punctuation: these are essential skills for all the different kinds of writing – fictional or non-fictional, artistic or commercial. Getting clear about the rules will serve you well in every walk of life. Gaining confidence in your knowledge of the kinds of sentence that best fit your thought and your options for carving up the information you want to get across will result in a writing style that will stand out from the crowd.

From the biggest to the smallest, a sentence is made up of: clauses, phrases, then words. Lastly, punctuation will do the important work of dividing, organising and signalling for the reader where this packet of meaning starts and ends, where it subdivides into smaller packets, and how its rhythm and music plays out.

There are of course many choices and many different outcomes when composing a sentence. That is not to say that, for one intended meaning, all the different sentences you can make will have the same meaning. All roads do not lead to Rome when it comes to realising your thought within the written word. Did the thought come first, or the expression? That road is far too long and philosophical to go down here! But, suffice to say that understanding the maxim ‘the medium is the message’ will help you to see that the choices you make have a strong influence on what will be received, understood and experienced by your reader. This insight will take you far. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Two sides of the same coin, is what I’m saying!

There will always more than one grammatically ‘correct’ option for a sentence, and so knowing the possibilities on offer and the effects they produce will enable you to shape your text and create your authorial identity. And, make no mistake, you are always communicating an identity when you write. The question is: is that identity strong, well-conceived and sharply defined? Or is it blurry and disorganised?

Knowing the rules – and where to bend or ignore them – gives you the power to create a strong authorial voice. So, here are a few essential points you should always keep in mind, whatever you are writing.

Coming next – Part Two: Getting to grips with clauses.

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