sentence combining (grammar and composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

sentence combining - puzzle
According to William Grabe and Robert Kaplan, sentence combining activities "build writing fluency, improve tacit knowledge of structure, promote flexibility, and allow for more complex writing" (Theory and Practice of Writing: An Applied Linguistic Perspective, 1996/2014). (Andy Roberts/Getty Images)

Definition

Sentence combining is the process of joining two or more short, simple sentences to make one longer sentence. Sentence combining activities are generally regarded as an effective alternative to more traditional methods of teaching grammar.

"Sentence combining is a kind of linguistic Rubik's cube," says Donald Daiker, "a puzzle that each person solves by using intuitions and syntax, semantics, and logic" (Sentence Combining: A Rhetorical Perspective, 1985).

 

As demonstrated below, sentence combining exercises have been used in writing instruction since the late-19th century. A theory-based approach to sentence combining, influenced by Noam Chomsky's transformational grammar, emerged in the U.S. in the 1970s.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • Here's a simple example of how sentence combining works. Consider these three short sentences:
    - The dancer was not tall.
    - The dancer was not slender.
    - The dancer was extremely elegant.
    By cutting out the needless repetition and adding a few conjunctions, we can combine these three short sentences into a single cohesive sentence. We might write this, for instance: "The dancer was not tall or slender, but she was extremely elegant." Or this: "The dancer was neither tall nor slender but extremely elegant." Or even this: "Neither tall nor slender, the dancer was extremely elegant nonetheless."
    (What Is Sentence Combining and How Does It Work?)
  • "While combining exercises can be found in the 1890s, it was not until 1957, when Noam Chomsky revolutionized grammatical theory with his book Syntactic Structures, that the theoretical base was established upon which modern sentence-combining pedagogies would be founded. This base was, of course, Chomskian transformational-generative (TG) grammar."
    (Robert J. Connors, "The Erasure of the Sentence." College Composition and Communication, September 2000)
  • "There is substantial research evidence . . . that sentence combining, as an instructional technique, produces at least temporary benefits in richer sentences--which is all that any technique for teaching writing does, unless the teacher follows up by repeatedly guiding students to apply what they have learned."
    (Carolyn Carter, The Absolute Minimum Any Educator Should Know & Teach Students About the Sentence. iUniverse, 2003)
  • Effectiveness, Not Correctness
    "The problem I've seen with sentence combining is in how some teachers use it: to focus on correctness. They have students share their sentences and then decide if they're 'right' or not. Instead, I ask students to combine kernel sentences in at least two different ways and then decide which they like better and why. When we share, I ask for several responses so that we can discuss the effects of combining one way over another: Why do they like one sentence more than another? What difference in meaning do the various combinations create? This work with sentences shouldn't be about right or wrong; it's about rhetorical effectiveness and helping students understand how to achieve it."
    (Deborah Dean, Bringing Grammar to Life. International Reading Assoc., 2008)
     
  • What Sentence Combining Is and What It Isn't
    "[A]lthough at first glance it may look like an exercise in creating long sentences from short ones, sentence combining is really about building relationships among ideas and showing them in clear and interesting ways. . . .

    "Sentence combining isn't about saying long sentences are better than short sentences, and it isn't about trying to make senses convoluted. Sentence combining is about playing with ideas and shaping them into effective syntactical patterns that make sense for individual writing situations: sometimes long, sometimes short."
    (Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean, Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond. Stenhouse, 2014)
     
  • Sentence Combining in 1902

    Direction. -- Combine the following short sentences into longer ones.
    Caution. -- In combining short sentences into longer ones, the pupil should be careful to give every part its proper place. The leading thoughts must form the principal clauses and the others must occupy positions of subordination, corresponding to their importance. For example, in combining the statements, "In 1857 an Act was passed. It cut down the average of duty to twenty per cent," if we wish to give "the passing of the Act" prominence, the sentence will read, "In 1857 an Act was passed, cutting down," etc. If, however, we desire to give prominence to the "cutting down of the average of duty to twenty per cent," then we must write, "The average of duty was cut down to twenty per cent by an Act passed in 1857."

    Separate. -- A frog had seen an ox. She wanted to make herself as big as he. She attempted it. She burst asunder.
    Combined.-- (1) A frog had seen an ox, and wanted to make herself as big as he; but when she attempted it she burst asunder.
    (2) A frog that had seen an ox, and wanted to make herself as big as he, burst asunder when she attempted it.
    (3) When the frog burst asunder, she was wishing and attempting to make herself as big as an ox which she had seen.
    (4) Because a frog, when she had seen an ox, wanted to make herself as big as he, and attempted it, she burst asunder.
    (5) It is said that a frog, having seen an ox, wanted to make herself as big as he, and burst asunder in the attempt.

    1. He drew a picture of his old home. It showed the house. He was born in it. It showed the barns. It showed the orchard.
    2. They played on. They played till six in the evening. They then desisted. They desisted till after dinner.
    3. He reached his house. He gave orders. He was not to be disturbed. He went to bed. He tried to sleep. He tried in vain.
    4. The Declaration of Independence was agreed to. It was agreed to on the 4th of July. It was engrossed on paper. It was signed. John Hancock signed it. He was president of the Congress.
    5. Fair sir, you spit upon me. It was last Wednesday morning. You called me dog. That was another time. I am to lend you money. It is for these courtesies.
    6. Xerxes resolved to invade Greece. He raised an army. The army consisted of two millions of men. This was the greatest force ever brought into the field.
    7. He then left the lists. But he returned. He returned almost immediately. He had in his hand a willow wand. It was long. It was about six feet long. It was straight. It was thick. It was thicker than a man's thumb.
    8. I struck the man in self-defence. I explained this to the magistrate. He would not believe me. Witnesses were called to support my statements. He committed me to prison. He had a right to do this. This right is rarely exercised in such circumstances. I remonstrated.
    9. Then two or three boys laughed. They sneered. A big fellow was standing in the middle of the room. He picked up a slipper. He shied at the boy. The boy was kneeling. The big fellow called him a sniveling young fellow.
    10. The ceiling is arched and lofty. At one end is a gallery. In this there is an organ. The room was once adorned with weapons and trophies of the chase. The walls are now covered with family portraits.
    (William Williams, Composition and Rhetoric by Practice: With Exercises Adapted for Use in High Schools and Colleges. D.C. Heath, 1902)