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Sentence Length and Focus

May 24, 2021

An important principle of writing is variety of sentence length and focus. Methods of varying sentences involves a good level of grammar knowledge. At Southern, you will learn that grammar and style are closely connected. A fine style does not appear randomly. Style comes from knowledge and practice.

The English language is fundamentally end-focused; that is, English sentences tend to hold key information until the end through the normal use of Subject-Verb-Object. Note this sentence: “John kicked the ball.” We don’t know fully what John did until we reach the end of the sentence. To create variety of style, you must know how to shift focus. Writers can, with enough knowledge, make any portion (or slot) of a sentence the center of attention.

Three grammar terms describe this technique very well. Note the possibilities of the so-called it-cleft, the what-cleft, and the there transformation.

“It was a mistake to take the biggest apple.”

“What bothers me is the shape of the helmet.”

“There was a student in the hall.”

These three sentence transformations focus the reader’s attention at unusual points in a sentence and create longer sentences easily.  

Proper use of the to be verb is helpful for editing sentence length and focus. It usually takes longer to say something with the to be verb than it does with an active verb. To be is not a bad verb, however! It is critical to our language. But if you need to shorten a sentence for variety, consider not using the to be verb.

You might hear that the passive verb is to be avoided. We do have to be wary of the passive structure. It hides responsibility. However, it is sometimes a perfectly valid choice. We might want to focus on the receiver of action and not the doer. In the sciences this can be the best choice. “The temperature was increased exponentially and the box melted.” The passive works in everyday speech as well. “The thieves were caught.” The speaker of this sentence doesn’t care who caught the thieves, only that they were caught. 

The study of advanced grammar is absolutely necessary to the developing writer. Here at Southern, we specialize in such students!