Saturday, June 11, 2011

Question from the Comments

In the comments, Coleen asks,

I often catch myself writing sentences like:

"It was five o'clock on Sunday afternoon."

Any suggestions on how to re-word this?


Coleen, the best fix for this kind of sentence requires us to use sentence combining techniques. This means we look at the sentences next to flat sentences like this, and we try to combine them in a more interesting way. (Yes, scholars, that's a gross simplification of sentence combining methods.  But that's basically what it's all about.)

So let's imagine the next sentence was a simple sentence with little extra dressing.

It was five o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. The beach was crowded with tourists.

We can turn that first sentence into a pair of leading prepositional phrases for the next sentence, like so:

At five o'clock on Sunday afternoon, the beach was crowded with tourists.

That's easy enough, but it gets trickier if the second sentence isn't so simple.

It was five o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. The beach was crowded with tourists, and not an empty seat could be found at any of the sidewalk cafes.

In that case, you might want to split the second compound sentence to keep it from becoming overly long. The ideas in the compounds can be split with little impact on meaning. Like so:

At five o'clock on Sunday afternoon, the beach was crowded with tourists. Not an empty seat could be found at any of the sidewalk cafes.
This method works best when the two ideas can be split without damaging the relationship between them. That's not always possible.

It was five o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. The beach was crowded with tourists, but all the locals were home enjoying a traditional family dinner.

In that case, the pairing of the two groups, tourists and locals, is done to create contrast and sentence-level tension. Splitting them apart would diminish that tension. In this case, we might opt for the longer combined sentence:

At five o'clock on Sunday afternoon, the beach was crowded with tourists, but all the locals were home enjoying a traditional family dinner.
This example works, but it won't always. Just be extra mindful of potential clarity issues when you build a long sentence. The more phrases and clauses in a sentence, the higher the likelihood for reader confusion. That doesn't mean all long sentences are confusing. It just means we have to be extra careful with them.

Theresa

2 comments:

Coleen Kwan said...

Very useful suggestions.
"It was five o'clock on Sunday afternoon" is a pretty boring sentence and deserves to be re-written, but I guess not all "It was" sentences are the same. I'm reminded of the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, where the "it was" phrase is repeatedly used almost poetically IMHO.

Leona said...

As always, I love how easy and simple you make this all look! I've sent multiple people to your site exclaiming over the prowress the two of you have on making grammar seem simple and fun!

I love the way you put these together :)

It could also depend on what the point of saying it's five oclock though.

"The five o'clock rush hour was lost on the beach combers who scoured the sand for every last drop of fun to be had while the locals went about their daily lives."

Everything has a different meaning depending on the structure as you've taught us so well :D