Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Sentence Beginnings

Just how do we start that perfect sentence? It can be a tough decision. Sentence beginnings are like first impressions, and we want to make sure they’re right. And while there’s no single correct way to start a sentence, we need to vary them to ensure our writing doesn’t get stale or boring.

So, what makes a bad sentence beginning anyway? Are there rules? Well, no, but let’s look at some examples of how repeated simple sentence openings can become stilted and tough to read. For example:

John went to the store. Anthony went with him. They bought food and drinks. They bought flowers for John’s mother. The man at the cash register smiled at them and gave them a discount. They returned home and put away the groceries.

What do all these sentence beginnings have in common? As we can see, each one consists of a noun followed by a verb. Unfortunately, these simple sentences quickly become boring, decreasing the impact of our writing. Let’s see what happens when we vary them a bit.

John and Anthony went to the store, where they bought food, drinks, and flowers for John’s mother. Smiling, the man at the cash register gave them a discount. Returning home, the two put the groceries away.

See how much better this flows? Here, we’ve left the simple noun-verb structure for the first sentence, but, in the second, we’ve used “smiling” as a participial or transitional word. And in the third, we’ve emphasized the action of returning home, rather than the two boys.

Let’s look at some other ways to rearrange simple sentence beginnings (e.g. common noun-verb constructions) and add some variety to our work. Remember, our goal here is not only to minimize the use of simple sentence openings - it’s to become better writers!

Example #1

The dog barked with great ferocity.

With great ferocity, the dog barked.

Here, we’ve placed “with great ferocity” at the top of the sentence. Notice how it highlights the action of the dog barking rather than the dog itself.

Example #2

The car’s engine made a loud boom from around the corner.

From around the corner came the loud boom of the car’s engine.

Here, we’ve rearranged the sentence so the initial subject (the car’s engine) is placed at the end. The second sentence highlights a location and a sound rather than the car’s engine.

Example #3

Billy stayed home from school, sad about the loss of his grandmother.

Sad about the loss of his grandmother, Billy stayed home from school.

Here, we’ve started with an adjective. In a normal noun-verb sentence opening, the adjective would follow, rather than lead, the noun and verb.

Example #4

Briana danced the night away.

Here we have a very simple sentence, which may work well. However, you could try adding a present or past participle to the beginning, describing a little more action or detail.

Laughing at her own silliness, Briana danced the night away.

Not only does it paint a better picture, it breaks up the noun-verb opening.

Example #5

The furious man shook his fist at the car turning the corner.

Enraged, the man shook his fist at the car turning the corner.

In this example, we can actually leave the sentence intact, but add a transitional word or phrase to the front for little variety.

We can also try this with an adverb.

Furiously, the man shook his fist at the car turning the corner.

Or, an appositive.

A furious old man, Robert shook his fist at the car turning the corner.

Example 6

Now, let’s synthesize some of the above examples in the context of a full paragraph. First, let’s read a paragraph made of simple noun-verb sentence openings.

Jacob ran into the street. Anne met him. They ran together down the block. Their shoes flew off the pavement. A car passed by and nearly hit them. They didn’t care. They held hands and kept running. They swerved out of the street and onto the grass. They each grabbed onto the giant oak tree trunk and climbed up. They sat there, catching their breath.

Did you notice that you started to tune out while reading? While the actions described in this paragraph are clear, we lose interest, because each sentence has the same structure.

Anne and Jacob met in the street and ran together down the block, shoes flying off the pavement. Around the corner came the car, nearly hitting them, but they held hands and kept running. Suddenly, they swerved out of the street and onto the grass. Up the giant oak tree they climbed, then sat there, catching their breath.

See how this paragraph keeps our attention? Varied sentence beginnings emphasize different actions and locations, whereas a simple noun-verb construction always emphasizes the subject.

Our goal is to keep our sentences diverse, which makes for more interesting reading. Remember, sentence beginnings (and sentence structure in general) create a tone and rhythm for the reader - and that tone is as important as the content itself!

For more modules and other helpful instructional writing pieces, visit our blog at: http://blog.paperrater.com/.

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