sentence variety (composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

sentence variety
"Variety in sentence length is what's needed," says Ursula Le Guin. "All short will sound stupid. All long will sound stuffy.". (Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Definition

In a composition, sentence variety refers to the practice of varying the length and structure of sentences to avoid monotony and provide appropriate emphasis.

"Grammar checkers are of little help with sentence variety," says Diana Hacker. "It takes a human ear to know when and why sentence variety is needed" (Rules for Writers, 2009).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Basic Sentence Structures

Basic Sentence Types

Examples of Sentence Variety

See also:

Observations

  • "Sentence variety is a means by which the writer helps the reader to understand which ideas are most important, which ideas support or explain other ideas, etc. Variety of sentence structures in also a part of style and voice."
    (Douglas E. Grudzina and Mary C. Beardsley, Three Simple Truths and Six Essential Traits for Powerful Writing: Book One. Prestwick House, 2006)
     
  • Thomas S. Kane on Ways to Achieve Sentence Variety
    "Recurrence means repeating a basic sentence pattern. Variety means changing the pattern. Paradoxical as it sounds, good sentence style must do both. Enough sameness must appear in the sentences to make the writing seem all of a piece; enough difference to create interest. . . .

    "Of course, in composing a sentence that differs from others, a writer is more concerned with emphasis than with variety. But if it is usually a by-product, variety is nonetheless important, an essential condition of interesting, readable prose. Let us consider, a few ways in which variety may be attained.

    Changing Sentence Length and Pattern

    "It is not necessary, or even desirable, to maintain a strict alternation of long and short statements. You need only an occasional brief sentence to change the pace of predominately long ones, or a long sentence now and then in a passage composed chiefly of short ones . . ..

    Fragments

    ". . . Used with restraint, fragments . . . are a simple way to vary your sentences. They are, however, more at home in a colloquial style than in a formal one.

    Rhetorical Questions

    ". . . [R]hetorical questions are rarely used for variety alone. Their primary purpose is to emphasize a point or to set up a topic for discussion. Still, whenever they are employed for such ends, they are also a source of variety. . . .

    Varied Openings

    "Monotony especially threatens when sentence after sentence begins the same way. It is easy to open with something other than the usual subject and verb: a prepositional phrase; an adverbial clause; a connective like therefore or an adverb like naturally; or, immediately following the subject and splitting it from the verb, a nonrestrictive adjectival construction. . . .

    Interrupted Movement

    "Interruption--positioning a modifier or even a second, independent sentence between main elements of a clause so that pauses are required on either side of the intruder--nicely varies straightforward movement."
    (Thomas S. Kane, The New Oxford Guide to Writing. Oxford University Press, 1988)
     
  • A Strategy for Evaluating Sentence Variety
    Use the following strategy to review your writing for variety in terms of sentence beginnings, lengths, and types:
    - In one column on a piece of paper, list the opening words in each of your sentences. Then decide if you need to vary some of your sentence beginnings.
    - In another column, identify the number of words in each sentence. Then decide if you need to change the lengths of some of your sentences.
    - In a third column, list the kinds of sentences used (exclamatory, declarative, interrogative, and so on). Then . . . edit your sentences as needed.
    (Randall VanderMey, Verne Meyer, John Van Rys, and Patrick Sebranek. The College Writer: A Guide to Thinking, Writing, and Researching, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, 2008)
     
  • William H. Gass's 282-Word Sentence on Sentence Length and Variety
    "Anyone who looks with care into the good books shall find in them sentences of every length, on every imaginable subject, expressing the entire range of thoughts and feelings possible, in styles both as unified and various as the colors of the spectrum; and sentences that take such notice of the world that the world seems visible in their pages, palpable, too, so a reader might fear to touch those paragraphs concerned with conflagrations or disease or chicanery lest they be victimized, infected, or burned; yet such sentences as make the taste of sweet earth and fresh air--things that seem ordinarily without an odor or at all attractive to the tongue--as desirable as wine to sip or lip to kiss or bloom to smell; for instance this observation from a poem of Elizabeth Bishop’s: ‘Greenish-white dogwood infiltrated the wood, each petal burned, apparently, by a cigarette butt’--well, she’s right; go look--or this simile for style, composed by Marianne Moore: ‘It is as though the equidistant three tiny arcs of seeds in a banana had been conjoined by Palestrina’--peel the fruit, make the cut, scan the score, hear the harpsichord transform these seeds into music (you can eat the banana later); yet also, as you read these innumerable compositions, to find there lines that take such flight from the world that the sight of it is wholly lost, and, as Plato and Plotinus urge, that reach a height where only the features of the spirit, of mind and its dreams, the pure formations of an algebraic absolute, can be made out; for the o’s in the phrase ‘good books’ are like owl’s eyes, watchful and piercing and wise."
    (William H. Gass, "To a Young Friend Charged With Possession of the Classics." A Temple of Texts. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)