How "Sentence Combining" Works

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An alternative to traditional forms of grammar instruction, sentence combining gives students practice in manipulating a variety of basic sentence structures. Despite appearances, the goal of sentence combining is not to produce longer sentences but rather to develop more effective sentences —and to help students become more versatile writers.

How Sentence Combining Works

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, more coherent 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."

Which version is grammatically correct?

All three of them.

Then which version is most effective?

Now that's the right question. And the answer depends on several factors, beginning with the context in which the sentence appears.

The Rise, Fall, and Return of Sentence Combining

As a method of teaching writing, sentence combining grew out of studies in transformational-generative grammar and was popularized in the 1970s by researchers and teachers such as Frank O'Hare and William Strong. Around the same time, interest in sentence combining was heightened by other emerging sentence-level pedagogies, especially the "generative rhetoric of the sentence" advocated by Francis and Bonniejean Christensen.

In recent years, after a period of neglect (a period when researchers, as Robert J. Connors has noted, "did not like or trust exercises" of any kind), sentence combining has made a comeback in many composition classrooms. Whereas in the 1980s, as Connors says, "it was no longer enough to report that sentence-combining 'worked' if no one could specify why it worked," research has now caught up with practice:

[T]he preponderance of writing instruction research shows that systematic practice in combining and expanding sentences may increase students' repertoire of syntactic structures and may also improve the quality of their sentences, when stylistic effects are discussed as well. Thus, sentence combining and expansion are viewed as a primary (and accepted) writing instructional approach, one that has emerged from research findings holding that a sentence combining approach is far superior to traditional grammar instruction.
(Carolyn Carter, The Absolute Minimum Any Educator Should Know & Teach Students About the Sentence, iUniverse, 2003)