Sentence Patterns: Part 1 of 4

by F.

[Update: I’ve consolidated these four posts here.]

I recently came across a pretty good compendium of sentence patterns (for English): a book called The Art of Styling Sentences. It’s been around a while and gone through a few editions. I bought the 4th Edition for $5.00, which seemed like a reasonable bargain. While the book purports to discuss 20 patterns, there are variations, so it’s a little like studying chess openings: each pattern has variations, and that variation has variations, and so on.

In any event, it’s worthing picking up.

So what are the patterns? In this post I’ll describe 5; in the next 3 posts I’ll cover the rest. All of this knowledge is, of course, available in other sources. But since I didn’t see a Wikipedia entry on this topic, I’ll recount them here.

I’ll start with an example for each, as I think that’s easiest to remember the example rather than some S + V + DO pseudo-algebra. None of these will come as much of a surprise. These patterns are everywhere.

1. Some people like shooting prairie dogs with .50 caliber sniper rifles; others prefer shooting heroine.

This is a compound sentence: two clauses glued together with a semi-colon. The glued-together clauses should be related somehow, as in the example. There need not be only two clauses glued-together: you could have more, but generally no more than three. I tend to think this style of sentence is going out of style. It looks musty and academic, which makes you seem sort of pretentious of you flaunt your semi-colons like this.

2. Frank was arrested for pimping; his brother, for insider trading; his mother, for shooting prairie dogs.

This is a compound sentence with an elliptical construction. Note the lack of verbs in the last two clauses. Sort of clever sounding. Probably too clever in most contexts.

3. Everyone knew about Aunt Loretta’s oddest personality quirk: she would shoot any small furry thing that moved, even her bedroom slippers.

This is compound sentence with an explanatory statement. The explanatory statement comes after the colon. The first clause promises more. The second clause delivers it. Again, I’m not sure if this sort of construction will survive into the future. It looks a little formal and academic.

4. After Aunt Loretta got her Barrett .50 caliber rifle, there were dead prairie dogs on the road, on the lawn, on the tip of the church steeple.

This is a series of clauses without a conjunction. That’s about all there is to it. Just cut the last conjunction and you get a kind of staccato. Bang. Bang. Bang. You can glue together as many clauses as you like: “We came, we saw, we kicked ass.” Remember the Forest Gump litany of ways to cook shrimp? Same sort of thing.

5. Aunt Loretta shot her husband Barry and her husband Larry and her husband Harry.

This is a series of clauses with an “extra” conjunction. And. And. And. This kind of sentence has a sort of Biblical sound: “And Jehosaphat began Faloosaphat, and Faloosaphat begat Jedidiah, and Jedidiah begat Bat Boy, and Bat Boy begat Lobster Boy.” You get the idea. Cormac McCarthy’s stories have a lot of this. I get tired of it real fast.

Tune in next time for balanced pairs and appositives.

UPDATE: the second post in this series is here.

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