Sentencing without Offence

The Power of Sentences

When courtroom judges deliberate on a legal case, they have guidelines for sentencing. They can rely on particular principles to insure that the judicial process is fair and consistent and that the sentences they had down are not too long or too short.

In our Life Writing, too, it helps to be mindful of principles and guidelines so that our results are fair and consistent and our sentences are not too long or too short. Yet, our writing is not a legal process, so we also aim for beauty and power and truth. 

It is appropriate for us to think about sentences, because just as our lives can be revised (or “restoried”), so too can the sentences we use to describe them. Of course, when we get to this level of writing, many people consider the topic to be boring. Some of us may still have mental scars from our grammar studies in the English classroom, especially if we are old enough to remember diagramming sentences as a way of learning the “parts of speech.”

More recent generations have been spared that indignity, since research eventually showed such practices had little real benefit for writing. Even so, I don’t wish to underestimate the power of good sentences.

Let me share the story of a young English boy who did not do well in his early years in school. He came from the upper classes, but his busy parents didn’t have much hope for him academically. At Harrow, he was placed in a remedial class for students who were “too simple” to learn classical languages—Greek and Latin. 

The teacher, a man named Robert Somervell, drilled down on the ability to write a good English sentence. And this particular boy managed to excel at that. He became a military officer and his correspondence from the fields of operation were models of clarity. In time, he ran for Parliament and eventually he became Prime Minister—Winston Churchill. He later said: “I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.” 

In his hands, it certainly was and—after the war—he won a Nobel prize for his historical writing.

 In our Writing Activities, there is one called “Sentences That Give Life.” I talk there about how words from poetry, famous speeches, or from scripture can convey energy, insight and wisdom. They can “give life.” 

The converse also is true—as good writers, we also can give sentences life. In our first draft, most of us are not concerned about the grace and eloquence and beauty of our sentences. We simply record our memories and our feelings. But once we decide to share our writing with others, we may need to revise and refine it. 

I learned to read in a country school that used the Dick-and-Jane basal readers. 

  • See Spot? See Spot run. Run, Spot, run!”
  • Dick went to the hen house…. ‘Oh!’ said Dick. ‘Look at the eggs.’

Those are all simple sentences, appropriate perhaps for a beginning reader, but if our adult discourse stays at that level, the result will be boring.  

Simple sentences can also be used powerfully. The writer of the Gospel of John was skilful and he records Jesus’ reaction to the news that his friend Lazarus has died and been buried. In Chapter 11, he says simply: “Jesus wept.” (KJV, 11:35). It is the shortest verse in the Bible, but a powerful one.

One of our goals in writing needs to be variety, and we have four basic sentence structures to work with: the Simple, the Compound, the Complex, and the Compound-Complex. Basically, those are the options. We learn to combine and vary these four to keep our writing interesting and clear. Most of the time, we choose our sentence intuitively and the results are good. However, when revising our written work to make it more effective, we may wish to think more consciously about our sentences. If we are using simple sentences, we want them to sound not simplistic like those in Dick-and-Jane stories but skilful as in John’s gospel. 

If you are a self-directed learner, you have many opportunities to grow your skills in this area:

  • You will find the basic knowledge in most grammar books. Usually, you can buy very cheaply in a used bookstores. 
  • You can find an abundance of good teaching about sentences on the Internet, especially of you go to On-line Writing Labs (a.k.a. OWLs) provided by universities for their students. 
  • Perhaps the best way is to “read like a writer.” Take three or four books that you have enjoyed reading and look closely at the sentences. If the book has been successful, you’ll be learning from the best.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal,” said Winston Churchill in one of his memorable (compound) sentences, “it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Churchill’s advice pertains not only to our lives, but also to how we write about them and the sentences we employ to do it.

Four Basic Sentence Structures

Reading Like a Writer: At the Sentence Level

Considerations for Sentence Variety