Sentence construction and rhythm

We saw in the previous post, how style and rhythm are affected by how a series is handled – using commas as separators with the serial comma (or Oxford comma) before the conjunction; using all conjunctions and no commas; or using only commas for the series. As Kolln illustrated, the use of all conjunctions slows the pace and put emphasis on each element in the series, while the use of just commas makes the pace brisker. The Oxford comma is often left out of series or lists in poetry because it is believed to affect the pace, again as we saw in the previous blog. In the example of this line “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” from the well-known poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, the addition of the Oxford comma would compromise its stately and majestic pace.

The rhythm of sentences can make readers rush ahead or slow down, and this pacing is affected by word choice and other literary devices, such as sound-based ones. As discussed in an earlier post, the use of literary devices can cause ambiguity; however they can also add richness and resonance to the language and meaning.

Of course, we expect to find rhythm and meter and rhyme in traditional and in children’s poetry. These more conventional examples, still, can teach us about creating rhythm and meaning.

For instance, Jack Prelutsky, in his collection Tyrannosaurus Was a Beast, wrote about one of the longest and slowest dinosaurs:

Diplodocus plodded along long ago,/ Diplodocus plodded along.

This line illustrates how language selection, both word choice and arrangement, is used to slow down the pace, mimicking the subject of the poem. The use of assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia (defined in the post on ambiguity) dramatizes the characteristics of the dinosaur, which are further emphasized by the refrain-like repetition of the lines. One reviewer called the line “ponderous” – slow-moving, heavy, lumbering.

Traditional and children’s poetry tends to make use more of rhyme and meter than most modern and contemporary adult poetry; these favor free verse, which tends to follow the rhythm of natural speech rather than use rhyme or consistent musical or meter patterns.

“Natural speech” has wide variations, of course, and prose writers play with language and with rhetorical effects – sometimes as we have seen to the detriment of being comprehensible or ambiguous – but often to great effect. Sentences and prose passages can also have their own rhythm based on the number of syllables in words and the arrangement of words – something we touched on in the post on punctuating compound sentences.

Written (and spoken) language in its ordinary form still consists of some structure and rhythm, even if it is basic and somewhat boring.

Consider this collection of simple sentences:

A boy on the playground bumped into me. I pushed him back. He did not do anything. Then I pushed him again. He started to cry. I was surprised.

The simple sentences here are repetitive and monotonous. When each sentence follows the same structure and rhythm, the writing can become uninteresting since no relationship or meaning has been added with the use of complex sentence patterns.

However, simple sentences with repetition can be used to great effect as seen in the familiar opening of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.

Here the pattern of repetition of simple sentences and language creates a brisk rhythm as well as a mood by switching out the subject complements and modifiers and by setting up a pattern of opposites or contradictions.

A brisk pace can also be communicated with more complex sentence patterns, as in this example from On the Road by Jack Kerouac:

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.

As one commentator puts it, the passage (and the novel) “reads like the author is in a hurry to get his story shared. . . . you hardly have time to take a breath, the sentences keep running, one after the other.”

In the examples above, mostly short, simple sentences were used to create a mood and communicate meaning through rhythm and word choice patterns.

Though shorter and simpler sentence constructions are becoming more common, and perhaps favored, because of the speed and media of contemporary communications, such as email, texts, and tweets, it is useful to examine how longer, more complex sentences can also create mood and rhythm. For example, a passage from A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1955) by Dylan Thomas shows how one sentence can stretch line upon line:

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.

This is known as a periodic sentences–very long and involved, with suspended construction—it builds details and mood in subordinate clauses and phrases, with the sense or meaning not completed until the main clause at the end.

While such writing may feel “old-fashioned” to many contemporary readers, it is important for writers to understand how the mood and meaning of their writing can be communicated through sentence structure and variety, as well as through word choice and the use of rhythm and other sound devices. In future posts, we’ll continue to look at how the conscious use of different sentence constructions can enhance your writing.

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