Sentence Imitation in English

sentence imitation
The instructional strategy of sentence imitation has ancient roots. Morsa Images/Getty Images

In rhetoric and composition studies, sentence imitation is an exercise in which students study a sample sentence and then imitate its structures, supplying their own material. Also known as modeling

Like sentence combining, sentence imitation offers an alternative to traditional grammar instruction and a way of fostering stylistic dexterity. 

Examples and Observations

  • "Sentence imitation has a long history. Students imitate the structure of sample sentences with their own content. Usually, this helps extend students' repertoire of grammatical structures. Depending on the sample sentences, students can learn how to use appositives, participial phrases, subordinate clauses, or parallel structure (among others) in their writing. They don't have to know the names of the structures--in fact, I started teaching imitation by naming the parts of the sentences ('The sentence starts with an infinitive phrase . . .') and just about destroyed my students' interest before I learned that they could imitate without naming anything. Once they understood the idea of imitation, they became avid imitators, bringing in sentences for me to use with the class and sharing their imitations generously."
    (Deborah Dean, Bringing Grammar to Life. International Reading Assoc., 2008)

Sample Imitations

MODEL SENTENCE: The gallows stood in a small yard, separate from the main grounds of the prison, and overgrown with tall prickly weeds.--George Orwell, "A Hanging"
(Write a sentence according to the pattern of the model sentence.)
IMITATION: The dog shivered in the background, wet from nosing his way through the early-morning grasses and covered with damp cocklespurs.
MODEL SENTENCE: He went through the narrow alley of Temple Bar quickly, muttering to himself that they could go to hell because he was going to have a good night of it.--James Joyce, "Counterparts"
IMITATION: They stood outside on the wet pavement of the terrace, pretending that they had not heard us when we called to them from the library.
MODEL SENTENCE: I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.--Henry David Thoreau, Walden
IMITATION: I greeted him politely, although I planned to challenge him repeatedly, to assess his erudition, to test whether he could discriminate what was expedient in each situation, and, after I had probed him thoroughly, to announce that we had no place for him in our organization.
(Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 1999)

Finding Model Patterns

"One effective way of experimenting with various styles and of broadening your store of sentence patterns is to imitate (or mimic) the style of other good writers, writers you respect...
"The best place to find model patterns is in your reading. The process is simple and enjoyable: pick out sentence structures that you like from the work of professional writers and imitate their patterns, replacing their words and ideas with your own. To assure that you can pick out these patterns accurately, you have to be able to do three things:(Adrienne Robins, The Analytical Writer: A College Rhetoric. Collegiate Press, 1996)

  1. Identify the base clause.
  2. Identify the additions.
  3. Identify the connections between the descriptive parts of the sentence and what they describe.

​​Imitating a Sentence by John Updike

"Almost anyone can read with pleasure the sentence in which John Updike tells us what it was like to see Ted Williams . . . hit a home run in his last at bat on September 28, 1960:

It was in the books while it was still in the sky.

". . . How hard is it to write a sentence like Updike's? Well, let's try. What you need is a hinge word that ostensibly separates distinct temporal states, but actually brings them together to the point where there is no temporal distance between them. Here is my (relatively feeble) attempt: 'It was in my stomach before it was off the shelf.' Now, I'm not going to make any great claims for my sentence, but I will say that it is a game attempt to approach Updike's art by imitating it, by arranging clauses in somewhat the same way he does in order to achieve a somewhat similar, if decidedly minor, effect. And once you get the hang of it--of zeroing in on a form that can then be filled with any number of contents--you can do it forever. 'She was enrolled at Harvard before she was conceived.' 'He had won the match before the first serve.'"
(Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. HarperCollins, 2011)

R.L. Stevenson on The Sedulous Ape

"Whenever I read a book or a passage that particularly pleased me, in which a thing was said or an effect rendered with propriety, in which there was either some conspicuous force or some happy distinction in the style, I must sit down at once and set myself to ape that quality. I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful and always unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts, I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony, in construction and the co-ordination of parts. I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire, and to Obermann. . . .
"Perhaps I hear some one cry out: But this is not the way to be original! It is not; nor is there any way but to be born so. Nor yet, if you are born original, is there anything in this training that shall clip the wings of your originality. There can be none more original than Montaigne, neither could any be more unlike Cicero; yet no craftsman can fail to see how much the one must have tried in his time to imitate the other. Burns is the very type of a prime force in letters: he was of all men the most imitative. Shakespeare himself, the imperial, proceeds directly from a school. It is only from a school that we can expect to have good writers; it is almost invariably from a school that great writers, these lawless exceptions, issue. Nor is there anything here that should astonish the considerate. Before he can tell what cadences he truly prefers, the student should have tried all that are possible; before he can choose and preserve a fitting key of words, he should long have practised the literary scales."
(Robert Louis Stevenson, "The Sedulous Ape," 1887)

Teaching Imitation in Composition (1900)

"The value of imitation in teaching composition is too often overlooked. . . .
"The nature of intelligent imitation, its selective nature in choice models, the progressive nature of the model ever becoming more refined, more ideal, could not easily be made more apparent. That so many literary men of originality and genius have made so large use of imitation in the development of their style and method of thought, seems to lend much evidence in favor of a more liberal use of imitation and its methods in other lines of education. The claim has already been made in this paper, and I wish to emphasize it here again, that while imitation in itself is not originality, it is the rational method of developing originality in the individual."
(Jasper Newton Deahl, Imitation in Education: Its Nature, Scope and Significance, 1900)

Sentence-Imitation Exercises

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Sentence Imitation in English." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, September 8). Sentence Imitation in English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Sentence Imitation in English." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).