Devices for Sentence Variety

The past few posts have focused on subordination by dependent clauses and subordination by verbals and reduction. We use subordination to express relationships between our ideas, combining ideas and sentences of unequal importance.

When we create complex sentences, we combine two independent clauses, by changing one independent clause into a dependent (subordinate) clause which contains the idea of lesser importance. (The main clause contains the more important point.)

Other devices of subordination are used to create a subordinate elements by substituting a simpler word group for a longer and more complicated word group: a clause to a verbal, appositive, or prepositional phrase, or a phrase to a phrase to a single adjective or adverb.

By understanding the various types of subordinate word groups, you not only save words, but also give more interesting diversity to your sentences. This blog has repeatedly emphasized how the knowledge of grammar can enhance a writer’s style as well as expression.  

Sentences are rarely used in isolation, but rather are usually part of a paragraph with other sentences. In addition to relating the ideas they convey, it’s also helpful to consider their patterns when combining them into a paragraph.

As discussed in a number of posts, English is a word order language, with subject usually coming first:

Subject – Verb

Subject – Verb – Direct Object

Subject – Verb – Subject Complement

A simple way to create variety is to begin a sentence with an adverbial modifier, which we have seen is one part that can move around easily. These moveable modifiers include a single adverb, an adverb phrase, and an adverb clause.

beginning with an adverb

The whole pile of dishes went down.

Down went the whole pile of dishes.

beginning an adverb phrase

I never trusted ladders after that experience.

After that experience, I never trusted ladders.

beginning an adverb clause

The fish jumped the hook as I pulled in the line.

As I pulled in the line, the fish jumped the hook.

Placing the adverbial modifier at the start of a sentence creates suspense. Also when a word or word group is not in its usual position, it gives emphasis to it and the ideas it expresses.

Adjectives can also be moved for emphasis. Usually adjectives come right before the nouns or pronouns they modify. By placing the adjective right after the noun or pronoun, it gives them greater emphasis:

His strong, calloused hands were no strangers to work.

His hands, strong, calloused, were no strangers to work.

Switching the usual order of sentence patterns, such as action verbs and linking verbs, can also emphasize the ideas in their components. Here is an example of the action verb pattern Subject – Verb – Direct Object:

Terry would not accept this money.

This money Terry would not accept.

The direct object this money has been shifted to the beginning of the sentence.

In addition, sentence patterns with linking verbs, Subject – Verb – Subject Complement, can be varied by placing the subject complement (a hero) first:

Jackie Robinson was certainly a hero.

A hero Jackie Robinson certainly was.

Adverb clauses, which we have shown to be versatile in their movability and in their devices (such as elliptical clauses), are multi-faceted in creating additional sentence variety. Here are some other useful adverb clauses devices which can be used to replace the clause signal and make the clause more emphatic.

begin with verb

in place of  If

(meaning “on what condition”)

If I had taken more time, I could have done better.

Had I taken more time, I could have done better.

If I were in your place, I would do the same thing.

Were I in your place, I would do the same thing.

use Once

in place of  If, When, After, or As soon as

If you break the seal, you can’t return the bottle.

Once you break the seal, you can’t return the bottle.

use Now that

in place of Because

Because Dale has a job, he takes more interest in his appearance.

Now that Dale has a job, he takes more interest in his appearance.

begin with adjective

in place of Although

Although it is cheap, the car is no bargain.

Cheap as it is, the car is no bargain.

begin with adverb

in place of Although

Although we came early, we got poor seats.

Early as we came, we got poor seats.

Adjective clauses also have useful devices to vary sentence patterns and emphasis. There is a special type of adjective clause which is useful when you want to sate a fact about only a part or a number of a larger group. Consider this sentence:

Gloria has three sisters, one of whom is a nurse.

These special adjective clauses begin with the following words:

one of which, one of whom

several of which, several of whom

two of which, two of whom

most of which, most of whom

none of which, none of whom

all of which, all of whom

few of which, few of whom

There is a similar type of adjective clause in which a noun precedes the words of which or of whom; for example, the price of which, the result of which; the purpose of which.

While these are useful devices for variety, ordinarily, using the relative pronoun whose creates a smoother sentence than using the construction of which. It also requires fewer words. Contrast the two sentences below.

I read a novel the ending of which is disappointing. (10 words)

I read a novel whose ending is disappointing. (8 words)

Noun clauses beginning with the word that have a couple devices for varying word order and emphasis. For instance, when a noun cause is use as a subject, it begins the sentence, but it can sound a bit formal, even still for everyday speech.

That I had saved the receipt was fortunate.

To make the sentence less formal, we can move the noun clause to the end of the sentence, but because it occupied the subject position, we need to fill the space with the introductory word it:

[It] was fortunate that I had saved the receipt.

Another device is when a noun clause is used as an appositive after the construction the fact that.

This pattern is especially useful in tightening up a loose compound sentence as shown below.

I ate the stew, but that doesn’t mean that I liked it.

The fact that I ate the stew doesn’t mean that I liked it.

Sentence variety is an important tool for writers not only in making their point but also in making their writing interesting. By shifting word order, changing position, and adding or substituting words or phrases in different constructions, you can add emphasis as well as variety to your sentences. Of course, you do not want to use them all the time since your writing can come to sound stilted, artificial, or even pompous. On the other hand, you also don’t want to repeat the same sentence patterns over and over again. These devices for sentence variety are just some of the instruments for a writer’s toolkit.

(Examples adapted from English 3200)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *