On Sentence Variety

Sentence Variety


Integrating quotations from other sources is an important part of academic writing. Student writers are often able to write sentences well in their own voice but have difficulty when they try to weave the voices of others into their prose. I also find that most students have developed a particular strategy or formula for quotation that they use over and over again as a kind of crutch. This structure resembles the following:

According to Dr. Taylor, “all your quotes are made the same way” (89).

This sentence is correct in every way. However, it is important to develop some flexibility with respect to quotations. If you rely on a single strategy for quotation, your writing will be repetitive and bland. Further, you will often discover that the words you would like to quote will not easily fit into the structure illustrated above. Attempting to cram this borrowed language into your trusted, familiar structure will result in awkward and ungrammatical sentences. However, if you develop an ability to form sentences with a variety of sentence structures, you will never have this problem.

My guess is that most of you rely on this structure because you assume that the words of others must be presented in the precise order that they appear in the original. Part of becoming a better writer is understanding that you have the authority to chop up, reorder, and alter quotations to serve your purposes so long as you do not misrepresent the thinking or arguments of others.

A few examples

Let’s examine few examples based on this passage from George Orwell’s famous essay entitled “A Hanging”:

It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path. It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I sawt he mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working—bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming—all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned—reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone—one mind less, one world less. (47)

The following sentences all express the same meaning; however, they use a variety of sentence structures to accomplish that goal:

  1. “It is curious,” Orwell relates, as the hanging party approaches the gallows and the prisoner tries to avoid stepping in a puddle, “but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man” (47).

  2. Orwell finds it “curious” that it was only after viewing a condemned prisoner avoid getting wet on the way to his death that he “realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man” (47).

  3. Orwell reveals a “curious” truth: he “never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man” until he watched a condemned prisoner “[step] slightly aside to avoid a puddle” on the way to the gallows (47).

  4. By moving “slightly aside to avoid a puddle,” a condemned man makes George Orwell suddenly realize a “curious” truth—“what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man” (47).

  5. As the condemned man approaches the gallows and steps slightly aside to avoid a puddle, Orwell observes: “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man” (47).

Workshop Exercise

This second passage is taken from Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1964. In the essay, Hofstadter analyzes the over-blown rhetoric and paranoid psychology of a certain political type:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse. (77)

In the example sentence below, I have summarized the meaning of the passage. Rewrite this same meaning seven additional times, using a variety of sentences structures and quotations from the Hofstadter passage. It might be helpful to use some of my example sentences above for inspiration.

  1. Hofstadtler argues that the paranoid politician and the religious fundamentalist both have rhetorical excess and exaggeration in common (77).