Further Tips on Syntax
Let grammar, punctuation, and spelling into your life! Even the most energetic and wonderful mess has to be turned into sentences. –Terry Pratchett
When I was in middle school, I learned, like many students that age did and still do, about four types of sentences: the simple, the complex, the compound, and the compound-complex sentences. In most high school classes, most student-writers can do well by mixing these sentence patterns within each paragraph. If unable to do this, the students probably read a teacher’s exhortation to “vary syntax” or “use different sentence structures.” Writers need to change sentence styles so readers will find an engaging rhythm, not a maddening redundancy. Within the four basic structures, writers can craft myriad variations that condense detailed ideas, that make complex concepts more readable, that add emphasis to key points, and that create a pleasing rhythm. I offer a dozen tools for writers who have mastered the basics.
1.-3. Resumptive, Summative, and Free Modifiers
Williams details these structures, writing that “mature writers often use those patterns to extend a sentence” (196). All writers should avoid run-on sentences, obviously, but with these patterns, they can combine related ideas in one sentence without that sentence sounding like a run-on. Consider this example:
The administrative team created new measures that they hoped would help employees accomplish tasks that they previously had found time-consuming and difficult in a manner that everyone would be more efficient and less arduous.
This sentence is grammatically correct, but tiresome. Readers need to know what the administrative team wants and how employees would benefit. Unfortunately, to do so, they must untangle a series of dependent clauses. A writer could revise by creating multiple sentences:
The administrative team created new measures. They wanted to help employees accomplish time-consuming and difficult tasks. The administrators hoped the tasks would be more efficient and less arduous.
When I divided the first sentence into three sentences, I clarified the ideas. I also created a choppy rhythm that lacks voice. I can use resumptive, summative and free modifiers to rectify this problem.
With a “resumptive modifier,” writers can consolidate ideas and express them more gracefully. To start, identify a key term, repeat the term, and add a relative clause to add information about that term. Here is a revision of the sample sentence.
The administrative team created new measures to help employees, measures that would make time-consuming and difficult tasks more efficient and less arduous.
In this case, I emphasized “measures,” by repeating the word and stating their functions. I could have also emphasized that the administrators created the measures:
The administrative team created new measures to help employees, an act that would make time-consuming and difficult tasks more efficient and less arduous.
In this example, I used a “summative modifier.” I summarized what that the administrators had done (created new measures to help employees) as an act. I then described the aims of that act. To use a summative modifier, writers must recognize the important idea from the main clause and devise an appropriate term to capture this idea.
Finally, there is the “free modifier.” In this structure, writers use a participial phrase to describe the noun nearest to the main verb.
Hoping to make time-consuming and difficult tasks more efficient and less arduous, the administrative team created new measures to help employees.
In this example, unfortunately, the opening phrase leans towards being too long. Remember that, in most cases, we want to present the subject early our sentences. Free modifiers have flexibility, though. We are “free” to place them at the beginning or end of the sentence. In our sample sentence, I would prefer placing it at the end:
The administrative team created new measures to help employees, hoping to make time-consuming and difficult tasks more efficient and less arduous.
Compare the length of the initial sentence to the lengths of each revision, revisions that included resumptive, summative, and free modifiers. The revisions are shorter and more easily digested by readers. They express the same ideas with fewer words and less confusion.
Here are some professional examples from How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman
And part of what causes these cognitive errors is our inner feelings, feelings we do not readily admit to and often don’t even recognize (40).
That ‘box’ is the MRI scan, a revered technology that strongly constrains a doctor’s thinking (171).
But on occasion she could rearrange the data in her mind to form another plausible picture, a different pattern that could also account for the patient’s symptoms (171).
He was formal and focused in his speech, saying that the arthroscopy and the surgery would be performed at one sitting (172).
Dr. Karen Delgado, the specialist in endocrinology and metabolism, is well recognized in her city for her lateral thinking, making diagnoses that require such creativity and imagination (171).
The resident answered her in a tense voice, unaccustomed to being the primary interlocutor in place of Dr. C (163).
4 & 5. Semi-colons and Colons
With semi-colons and colons, writers can extend sentences (avoiding the need for a series of short simple sentences) by combining closely related ideas. The two punctuation marks are not interchangeable; that is, they have different purposes.
I have noticed students like to use semi-colons; unfortunately, they frequently use them incorrectly. To use them correctly, remember they are appropriate for two situations: to divide items in a series (if any of those items already contain a comma) and to express complete thoughts that are on the same level of specificity as the previous complete thought.
Here is an example of the first: using a semi-colon to divide items in a list:
Students face several challenges in their first year of college, including being away from their mothers, fathers, siblings, and pets; studying for more difficult courses, but having other obligations; and resisting temptations that exist at many college towns.
I separated items in the list with semi-colons because the first and second items contain commas. Even if only the first (or the second) needed a comma, then the semi-colons would be needed in the series.
The second example is more prevalent. In this example, writers connect complete, connected thoughts. I have already used two sentences in this section:
The two punctuation marks are not interchangeable; that is, they have different purposes.
I have noticed students like to use semi-colons; unfortunately, they frequently use them incorrectly.
In the first sentence, I separate two thoughts that express the same idea: semi-colons and colons “are not interchangeable” and, to clarify, semi-colons and colons “have different purposes.” Since these ideas are so closely related and are at the same level of specificity, the semi-colon is appropriate.
If you are struggling with the term “specificity,” consider the second of the sentences, the one about students using semi-colons. Each half refers to how students using semi-colons. The first half tells the reader they “like to use” them; the second half, that students “frequently use them incorrectly.” In both cases, I refer to students in general. If I had written, in the second part, how Heather uses semi-colons, then the two statements would be on different levels of specificity: I would have moved from a general statement to a specific example. In such a case (as I did in the previous sentence), either a colon or a period and new sentence would have been more appropriate.
I have noticed students like to use semi-colons: Heather, for example, uses them in half her sentences.
I have noticed students like to use semi-colons. Heather, like many of her classmates, uses them incorrectly.
Here is a professional example, this from Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution:
Deming’s husband asked where she wanted to go next; Sarah told him to let the horse decide (160).
“The poem by an anonymous author is not about a noble warrior dying heroically on the battlefield; it is about a loving father and friend” (248).
In the first sentence, both sides of the semi-colon are complete thoughts about Sarah Deming and her husband fleeing British-occupied Boston. Both deal with the issue of where they will go next. In the second, one side explains what a poem about Joseph Warren is not, and the other describes what the poem is. Each part has specific information about the poem’s purpose.
For most, the colon is simply for introducing a list. It is, however, more versatile. With a colon, writers can follow a general statement with a specific, often explanatory or exemplifying, sentence or phrase. (If the second part is a sentence, writers may choose whether to capitalize the first word or not—so long as they are consistent in their usage.) Writers can also use the colon after a single word or phrase and follow it with a complete thought that explains that word. And the colon is a good way to introduce a quote.
First, consider the common use, to introduce a list. Be sure that the colon does not follow a verb; a verb can stand on its own to introduce a list. For example:
Our three goals were creating a warm working environment, eliminating distractions, and supporting each team member.
We pursued three goals: creating a warm working environment, eliminating distractions, and supporting each team member.
While both are correct, the second sentence has the advantage of allowing writers to use a character as a subject and an active verb.
As I stated, though, there are other uses for the colon. Readers might notice that I like using a “general statement: specific explanation/example” structure in my own writing. Here are two examples from my chapter on audience:
In that case, the hungry person is one-dimensional: he is defined by his hunger.
In this case, again we must gauge the audience: How much do they already know about your topic? Are they novices who need the works? Do they share our level of expertise, but are looking to learn nuances of a subject?
After the colon in the first sentence, I explain what I mean by the person being one-dimensional. In the second, I provide examples of questions that writers need to ask when thinking about their audiences. With this structure, writers can more easily shift from general statements to analysis or supporting evidence.
Writers can also use colons after a brief word or phrase and follow them with more information (as you might see in a dictionary). Again, here is an example from my chapter on audience:
A caveat, though: writers should avoid becoming “stuck” because they perceive readers looking over their shoulders.
Finally, I am fond of using the colon as an alternative to a comma for introducing a quote. This works best, though, when the introduction is simple. If I use a lot of words before a quote, I have already made the reader work—and now they have to decode the quoted material. Be sure, though, that the words before the quote comprise a complete thought. Here are examples from my opening chapter (the first is what I wrote; the second, an alternative):
As author William Zinsser writes, “The problem is to find the real man or woman behind all the tension” (5).
William Zinnser writes: “The problem is to find the real man or woman behind all the tension” (5).
Note that this is the only time (introducing a quote) that writers should follow a colon with a verb. In the first, the comma is necessary because it follows a phrase; in the second, the colon works because it follows a complete thought.
It is easy for writers to avoid colons and semi-colons, and many do because they are unsure of how to use them. However, if they use these punctuation marks, writers can help readers more easily see relationships between ideas.
I recommend dashes because, as John Trimble writes, they provide “more verve to your style” (110). He also writes:
The dash, comma, and parenthesis are sister marks belonging to the family of Separators…The dash, meanwhile, the most dramatic of the three, boldly steps in when the parenthetical matter wants to be set off for emphasis, or when there is to be a sudden break in the flow of the sentence. (110-111)
I like that the dash not only emphasizes parenthetical information, but the shape—a line—sends the readers’ eyes forward (whereas a parentheses or comma might slow the readers’ progress). Yet, despite allowing readers to continue with little visual impediment, the dash also should alert readers: this information is important, so pay attention!
I recommend the double dash (which acts like a parentheses) to add information within a sentence, but only when writers want to emphasize that information. With that information, writers might insert a meaningful addition or simply an example related to the rest of the sentence. Note two things: the material within the dashes does not need to be a complete sentence and, when typing the dash on a computer, tap the “hyphen” key twice, using no spaces between the words that it connects.
Here are some examples from Ed Achorn’s Every Drop of Blood:
The soldiers that came up from the battles of the spring of 1864—men such as Selden Connor—were in particularly bad shape, as the carnage badly outstripped the army’s capacity to deal with it (73).
The day before, Blair—a former congressman and a close political ally of Lincoln—had metedout rough justice in retaliation for a guerilla’s shooting of one of his foragers (139).
Gardner took more pictures of him—thirty-eight all told—than any other photographer (290).
In the first, the dash allows the reader to quickly digest an example (one Achorn had already introduced) of “the soldiers…in particularly bad shape.” The second provides information about General Frank Blair. This information does not need its own sentence, but it is noteworthy given his relationship to the government and his “rough justice in retaliation” against the South. Achorn, in the third sentence, simply wants to accentuate the number of photos that Alexander Gardner took of Abraham Lincoln.
I also recommend a single dash as a precursor to the end of a sentence, most likely a surprising. Here is an example from John Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in which he advocated for the space program:
This year's space budget is three times what it was in January 1961, and it is greater than the space budget of the previous eight years combined. That budget now stands at 5 billion, 400 million dollars a year—a staggering sum, though somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year. (cited by Eidenmuller)
Even if we were not listening to the speech, we sense the drama that the dash—more specifically, what follows it—adds. Kennedy’s ending dash points to a (perhaps) surprising fact meant to mitigate the audience’s concerns about government spending on space exploration.
I might also use the dash after initial words in a sentence, as a way of building to a main statement:
Cold, tired, hungry—we trudged from the trail to the lodge.
I would warn against using this structure too much. In fact, once per fifty pages (or more). In non-fiction, especially, it may be too dramatic for some audiences. As with all of these structures, use variety and use what feels comfortable for your own voice.
7 & 8. Asyndeton and Polysyndeton
I will confess that I never encountered these terms until I taught Advanced Placement English Language and Composition. I had, however, used the syntactical strategies they identify. When I teach these terms, I start with a brief Greek lesson. The “a” in “asyndeton” refers to “an absence of.” The “poly” in “polysyndeton,” means “many.” The “syn” in each represents a “joining” or “together.” Hence, “asyndeton” describes a structure that lacks joining words; “polysyndeton,” the opposite. Here are examples of each:
At the beginning of the term, Coach Green faced dreadful conditions: a new principal, three different class preps, a broken air conditioner in her classroom, the departure of her best soccer players, parents that demanded that the team win a championship.
Normally, when we list items, we place a comma and an “and” before the last item. In this case, usually, after the word “players,” we would still see the comma, but then would see “and parents…” I omitted the and (“an absence of” a “joining” word). Why do this? I want readers to see this series of “dreadful conditions” as a whole. That is, the reader should see these as an accumulation of trouble, not individual issues. I have tried to capture the totality of the pressure that poor Coach Green must feel by lumping all of these issues together—without a joining word (“and”), that, in this case, ironically, would actually create an unwanted separation.
Rachel told her boyfriend that she could not play mini-golf after school because she had to make up a test and meet with the chess club and pick up her little brother from middle school and prepare for her grandparents’ 50th anniversary party.
Here, I used no commas, but several “ands” (“many joining words”) because I want to separate the items in the list of Rachel’s tasks. I want to emphasize each one to insinuate that each is a burden unto itself. Each task takes times. It is overwhelming to Rachel. The reader should feel this, and polysyndeton can create that effect.
9 & 10. Periodic and Loose Sentences
Consider these opposite styles when trying to affect the readers’ connection to content. With periodic sentences, the writer delays expressing a complete thought to create drama, even tension. In a loose sentence, the writer adds ideas after a complete thought; this affects the readers’ rhythm for a few possible effects: add a list of phrases that illustrate the myriad items the main idea entails; present more details to create a reflective mood; or provide causes (or effects) of the primary idea to emphasize its importance. Use both styles selectively as they will create longer sentences, and we risk losing readers if they are frequently overwhelmed.
In a periodic sentence, the writer starts a thought, but delays the completion of the sentence. For example, if I want to build tension in presenting a problem, I might use a series of dependent clauses before offering my solution:
When the readers possess finite time, if they have a plethora of entertainment options, and if weconsider our obligations to readers, we must write clearly.
I list three problems—the readers’ dearth of time, competing sources vying for that time, and a writer’s need to connect with readers. By using the periodic sentence structure, I emphasize these issues before offering my solution. The reader of this sentence should feel a bit of tension as they proceed through the dependent clauses, and they should anticipate a solution that relieves that tension. Patrick Henry famously did this in his Speech to the Second Virginia Convention:
If we wish to be free, if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending, if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight!
He speaks 60(!) words before articulating a complete thought: “we must fight!” I would not recommend scattering many sentences like this in an oration or an essay or article. He did have the advantage of an audience he had already engaged for several paragraphs that should have already been invested in the speech’s content. But making this structure truly effective for this speech, consider that he is talking about the tension between the British and the American colonies; this sentence oozes tension. Even the sentence’s conclusion, as clearly as he states it (“we must fight”), adds to the tension.
The periodic sentence can be employed to great effect. Try not to overuse it. A good writer knows when to insert such a structure: where they can build readers’ anticipation and add to the importance of an issue.
Writers can best use the other side of this pair, the loose sentence, when they need to extend or elaborate upon a seemingly simple concept. They often do so by cataloguing (listing) tangential or more specific items related to the initial complete thought. Here are some examples:
- We needed to prepare for the hurricane, stocking our refrigerator with essentials, checking the batteries in our flashlights, placing boards over our homes’ windows, and, if necessary, ensuring we had gas in our cars and a place to evacuate.
- The children shared fond memories of their parents, allowing other attendees to see into the lives of the couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and to contemplate the wealth of love shared in the family.
- The whales thrilled the sightseers with their majestic presence and the playful nature of their interactions, creating a moment in which humans felt the grandeur of the sea and connected with normally unreachable marine life.
In the first sentence, I used the loose structure to detail important steps in preparing for a harrowing event (the hurricane), an event that I used only seven words to introduce. In the second, the loose structure details a couple of effects of the children’s storytelling. For the third, I provided causes (“majestic presence” and “playful nature”) and effects (“felt the grandeur…” and “connected with…”), and in doing so, I aimed for a reflective mood that captured this unique moment.
Here is one of my favorite professional examples, from Dr. Jerome Groopman’s “Dying Words”:
Oncologists give bad news to patients some thirty-five times per month on average, telling a patient that he has cancer, that his tumor has come back, that his treatment has failed, that no further treatment would be helpful. (63)
I like this sentence because a tough situation is presented simply (“Oncologists give bad news”), and then Groopman details all of the difficult aspects of “bad news”—in a climactic order, no less. Notice how each item is another step along the way to the worst bad news: “that no further treatment would be helpful.”
The loose sentence allows writers to quickly convey an important idea and to add to it while maintaining a readable flow. For example, what if Groopman had each item of bad news in a separate sentence? Less stylish, at best. Stale and tiresome, at worst. In his version, he packs several key ideas into one readable sentence—made more readable by the repetition of the structure of each relative clause (“that…,” “that…,” “that…,” “that…”). You might also notice that he has used asyndeton, another way of unifying each element of “bad news.”
The loose sentence, like the periodic sentence, can be a powerful tool. Again, try to avoid overusing it, though I contend that it might be more frequently viable because writers still can get quickly to the subject and quickly from the subject to the verb. Hence, they are more readable.
Anaphora is a form of repetition in which writers use the same beginning words or phrases in successive clauses or sentences. We have already seen an example with Patrick Henry’s speech (“If we…,” “if we…,” “if we…”), and likewise with Groopman’s repetition of “that.” Why do this? For one, readers like the rhythm a certain amount of repetition can create. Furthermore, writers can unify ideas, place them in a box together, if you will. A writer also emphasizes the repeated idea. Sure, there are some short-sighted teachers who will accuse the writing of being “boring” because of repeated words and phrases. I agree with the reader who becomes weary of repetition without purpose. This, however, is not anaphora. If used correctly, anaphora creates strength. Consider an example from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in which King reflects on charges that he is an “extremist,” and turns those aspersions into praises:
Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good tothem that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God."
Remember that King was writing to an audience of priests and rabbis. Hence, when he alludes to religious figures, he makes a connection to that audience. But the anaphora unifies these allusions and these quotes. Plus, he emphasizes the word “extremist,” and beautifully turns an insult to his character into a compliment.
With anaphora, here is the caution: Be certain that the ideas are worth a. unifying or b. emphasizing or c. both. You are using a tool that is striking to the reader, that draws attention. Make sure the ideas deserve that attention.
12. Doubles vs. Triples
Consider the difference between stating two ideas and three. If a coach says that the keys to winning are “preparation and execution,” the two ideas stand as equal entities. Both are necessary. Or maybe there are two choices: “chocolate or vanilla.” They are, in theory at least, equal in their viability.
With two items to discuss, we expand from a single idea. Think about thesis statements, for example (and we will get to the “magic three”). I have a weak thesis if I write, “Americans should do X because of Y,” and by implication, “Y” only. Maybe my argument is against Major League Baseball’s designated hitter rule. Here’s one thesis: “Major League Baseball should abolish the designated hitter because it allows unskilled fielders to hit.” Okay. One reason. I am sure that the opposite side can state at least two. Even if they are two weak reasons, they could still outweigh my one reason. Then again, maybe I write, “Major League Baseball should abolish the designated hitters because of equity and strategy.” I could expand on the equity by decrying the hitter who is not athletic enough to field and the pitcher who can throw close to hitters without ever stepping into a batter’s box. I also could depict the greater amount of strategy required in non-designated hitter games. I have two ideas that stand powerfully together.
Maybe I am just writing a sentence describing a person. The person becomes one-dimensional if I write, “Jim is arrogant.” To be certain, there is a power in assigning a person a singular defining trait. I’d like to think that we create more depth by giving twin traits, perhaps even traits that conflict: “Jim is arrogant and simple-minded” or “Jim is arrogant, but kind-hearted.” I am obviously a fan of two pillars, especially when adding a third makes no sense.
Let’s return to our coach with the keys to winning. Now he says that the team will win with “preparation, execution, and good weather.” Wait, what? Good weather should not have equal weight with two concepts that the team can control (“preparation” and “execution”). Likewise, I have seen many thesis statements in which a student has aimed for “the magic three,” hoping, no doubt, to write a nice, tidy, five-paragraph essay, and that student has added a weak third item. Back to my designated hitter thesis. I write, “Major League Baseball should abolish the designated hitter because of equity, strategy, and I was in the stands the time pitcher Nolan Ryan hit a home run against Atlanta.” I have created three unequal pillars: the third pillar, my one-time experience, does not speak to greater issues the way that the other two do.
If we keep writing about Jim, consider this effect when we introduce him: “Jim is arrogant, has a fragile ego, and wears cheap clothing.” Okay, maybe for a comic effect, that works. However, if I am writing something serious, perhaps about a mayor and her campaign, such a petty and specific detail distracts readers: “Mayor Jones will bankrupt the city, increase unemployment, and make our citizens a laughing-stock because of her weird facial expressions.”
I do not mean to dissuade from using three items when three items have similar weight in our descriptions and in our arguments. We like things in three. We are somewhat trained to read items in groups of three. There are three little pigs; the requirement to say “Rumpelstiltskin” three times; the Three Musketeers, porridge that is too hot, too cold, and just right; the charm of the third time; three phases of life; and, of course, a holy trinity. In short, three seems just right. Just be sure that you have a legitimate three because sometimes two is better.
With these tips in mind, the exhortations to “vary syntax” or “change sentence structure,” become not only less vexing, but also less burdensome. Consider this: you can go beyond maintaining reader interest by varying your structure; you can enhance the power of your message. Try using these tools in low-risk writing situations and in your rough drafts (which should also be fairly low-risk). As with anything, more practice will produce more familiarity. You will probably find two or three that are favorites and some that you never use. That’s okay. Writing demands choices. Your style evolves from those choices. Try to develop a style that is readable and powerful.
Achorn, Edward. Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020.
Eidenmuller, Michael E. “Anesis,” American Rhetoric: The Power of Oratory in the United States, www.americanrhetoric.com/, Retrieved May 3, 2021.
Groopman, Jerome. “Dying Words,” The New Yorker, 28 Oct. 2002, pp. 62-70.
Groopman, Jerome. How Doctors Think. 2007. Mariner Books, 2008.
Henry, Patrick. “Speech to the Second Virginia Convention.” Gleeditions, 17 Apr. 2011, www.gleeditions.com/speechtothesecondvirginiaconvention/students/pages.asp?lid=414&pg=4. Originally published in Masterpieces of American Eloquence, edited by Alexander Johnston, G. P. Putnam, 1890, pp. 18-23.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter From Birmingham Jail. The Estate of Martin Luther King, Junior. Stanford University. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, 2014, https://swap.stanford.edu/20141218230016/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/popular_requests/frequentdocs/birmingham.pdf
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution. Penguin, 2014.
Trimble, John. Writing with style: Conversations on the art of writing. Prentice-Hall, 1975.
Williams, Joseph M. and Gregory G. Colomb. Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 10th Ed., Longman, 2010.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well. 5th ed., HarperCollins, 1994.