20 Sentence Patterns (Redux)

by F.

A while back I posted the basic English sentence patterns (or frames) but I scattered them across four posts. Given the number of views these posts get, I figured I should consolidate them for ease of use. (The original posts start here.)

All these patterns will be instantly familiar. They are everywhere. And using them is not brain surgery. But even brain surgery requires getting the basics right, for instance, cutting open the skull of the correct patient (“You mean this guy came in for a colonoscopy? Dammit.”)

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.

6. Cedric and his singing weasel dreamed of being a great song-writing duo like Lennon and McCartney, Ike and Tina, or Page and Plant.

This is a series of balanced pairs. The pairs are conjoined with a conjunction. There can be one, two, three, or however many pairs you like, but usually it’s two or three. The conjoined items should have the same relation in each pair.

7. Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Van Gogh—these painters are loved by the public.

This is a cluster of appositives with a summation. Now, what is an appositive? When I asked the Oxford American Dictionary, it told me it’s a word formation that communicates apposition. How helpful! Apposition is “a relationship between two or more words or phrases in which the two units are grammatically parallel and have the same referent.” In other words, an appositive is a word (or phrase) that refers to something else in the sentence. In the above example, “these painters” is the appositive. “These painters” = “Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Van Gogh.”

8. Francis learned the Core Values of his company—lying, cheating the customer, making crappy products—by imitating his manager.

This sentence has an internal series of appositives. The internal series is set off by dashes; it can also be done with parenthesis. The apposition occurs because “Core Values” = “lying, cheating the customer, making crappy products.” Now, I say “series” but you could have just one appositive between the dashes. Same thing. For instance, “The last vacation they’d taken—to the Caves of Mystery—had been a dream come true.” The apposition? “The last vacation” = “to the Caves of Mystery.”

9. If I had a rifle, if I had some moonshine, if I had the day off I’d go varmint hunting for certain.

This is a series of dependent clauses. The dependent clauses can be of any kind, and usually there are two or more. They can start with “because” or “when” or “after” or any of the usual prepositions. As in all things, save the best for last. Oh. And you can also reverse this pattern: “I’d go varmint hunting for certain if I had a rifle, if I had some moonshine, if I had the day off.”

10. In his office he had big books and small book and books about carnivorous plants and books about how to make a sauce of eggplant with boiled ants.

This exemplifies repetition of a key term. Book. Books. Books. The impression given is there are lots of books. The repeated term gets emphasized.

11. Marmots have one endearing trait: they whistle.

This sentence has an emphatic appositive at the end after a colon (or dash). The colon highlights what comes after. Using this sort of sentence can create nice variation for the reader. It sets up a sort of dramatic tension which is resolved after the colon: “What is the endearing trait? Oh. Whistling. Got it.” You can also use a dash instead of a colon.

12. Frank—an alcoholic as well as a great wit—never did complete his collection of 17th century stamps.

This sentence has interrupting modifier between subject and verb. Once upon a time, this sort of construction was quite popular. For instance, Henry James loved this sort of construction. It’s less fashionable now, I think. Why? It’s hard to process, particularly if the subject (here it is Frank) is difficult to think of. You can imagine the interrupting modifier as expressing a sotto voce aside to the audience: “Psssthe was an alcoholic as well as a great wit.” Personally, I find this kind of construction annoying: it slows down reading.

13. Frank—Why did he drink so much?—never did complete his collection of Hummel figurines.

This is a slight variation on the previous. Here, we get a full sentence in between subject (“Frank”) and verb (“complete”). This is actually more confusing that the previous example, I feel. But, again, James loved this sort of twisted construction. Here’s an example from The Real Thing:

These things were true, but it was not less true (I may confess it now–whether because the aspiration was to lead to everything or to nothing I leave the reader to guess), that I couldn’t get the honours, to say nothing of the emoluments, of a great painter of portraits out of my head.

Got that? I think the contemporary reader would skip that sentence if it were presented to him or her. It’s just too convoluted.

14. Running out of the house, the cat leaped into the air and caught a dragonfly.

This is your old friend the introductory (or concluding) participle. The participle can just as easily go at the end of the sentence, but you have to be careful when you move clauses because sometimes it screws up the meaning you intend. Take the above example. We could move the clause “Running…house” to the end of the sentence: “The cat leaped into the air and caught a dragonfly running out of the house.” Huh? The dragonfly was running out of the house? This exemplifies the heinous error of the dangling participle: the participle applies to the wrong thing. Just make sure that the subject of the participle is clear: the cat, in this case, is the one running.

15. Outside, the neighbor cat was drawing a picture with her claws on the sidewalk.

Here, we have a single modifier out of place for emphasis. The modifier is “outside.” “Outside” could also go in the middle or end of the sentence: “The neighbor cat was outside drawing…” or “The neighbor cat was drawing a picture with her claws on the sidewalk outside.” By putting the modifier at the beginning, you get two benefits: (1) you end the sentence with “sidewalk,” which gives it emphasis; and (2) you have “outside” at the beginning, which gives it some emphasis.

16. Outside on the lawn, the prairie dog took off his sunglasses.

This sentence has a prepositional phrase before the subject and verb. Sometimes you can omit the comma: “After a night of binge drinking he never felt good.” If the prepositional phrase is short, the reader probably doesn’t need a comma.

17. This sort of aggression I cannot abide.

Here we have inversion. The object or complement comes before the subject and the verb. The more natural way to say this sentence would be: “I cannot abide this sort of aggression.” Inverting it gives it special emphasis. It also sounds odd. Like Yoda: “Impatient you are, young Skywalker.” It sounded sort of funny in Empire Strikes Back (which was the intended effect), and it sounds no less funny in most writing. This sort of sentence I do not like.

18. Just as Buddha became enlightened under the Bodhi Tree, so too did my cat become enlightened while meditating under an arboreal canopy.

This is a paired construction. These come in various flavors: “Not only…, but also,” “The former…, the latter,” “If not…, at least,” and others, too.

19. Why the prairie dog sat under the tree and meditated I’ll never know.

This is a dependent clause as subject or object or complement. In other words, it’s a dependent clause playing another role. The dependent clause above is “Why the prairie dog sat under the tree.” This clause is the object of “know:” I’ll never know why the prairie dog sat under the tree and meditated. You can also have the dependent clause play the role of subject, as in: “Who shot Frank the prairie dog remains a mystery.” The dependent clause is the subject of the verb “remains.” Dependent clauses in these sorts of sentences begin with words like who, whom, which, that, what, why, where, when, and how.

20. The prairie dog, having tired of evangelical Christianity, turned to Buddhism for consolation.

This sentence has an absolute construction in the middle of it. It’s a little like a deer that that has been swallowed by a python: it sits there like a lump in the middle of the sentence. Now, it doesn’t have to sit in the middle: “Having tired of evangelical Christianity, the prairie dog…” Or it could go at the end: “The prairie dog turned to Buddhism for consolation, having tired of evangelical Christianity.” What is “absolute” here? Well, the idea is that the absolute construction (“…having tired of…”) has no grammatical connection with the rest of the sentence. It stands alone. It is connected by meaning, but not by grammar (subject, verb, object, complement—stuff like that).

And that’s 20. However, now I must reveal a secret. There’s one more: the short sentence, including the fragment. Here are some examples:

  • We talked.
  • Oops. Not again.
  • Why now?

The first example is a complete sentence, with subject and verb. The others aren’t. But they can work. Nicely. Not for formal writing, these sentences. But they can work in conversational prose.

Most of these patterns are collected in The Art of Styling Sentences, published by Barron’s, which is worth buying used.

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