Why do you keep a journal? To help you
think? To help you remember? To help you become a better writer? Your
sentence structure – your method of grouping and arranging your thoughts –
can help you accomplish all three goals.
What I have in mind is not so much what
you do with your main clauses as what you do after them. How do you
manage those trailing elements? How do you link them to your main
clauses? Do you use trailing elements at all?
Imagine yourself, for example, making a
journal entry, just jotting down your thoughts. You might be writing in
fragments or complete sentences. Either way, you’re not worrying about
sentence structure or technique. You’re concentrating on your content, as
you should be.
That might be as far as you go with the
majority of your entries. But occasionally you may want to go deeper.
You may want to elaborate on those first thoughts, to explore, probe and
capture the nuances of your feelings, to add rhythm and music to your
prose. Your sentence structure can help you do that.
To illustrate, let’s say you have just
written the previous paragraph. You have written it exactly as it
appears, except for one significant difference: You used no trailing
elements. In other words, rather than extending the third sentence (which
begins, “You may want to elaborate on”), you ended the sentence after
“those first thoughts.” Now your paragraph is made up entirely of main
Reread the paragraph without the two
dependent clauses that begin with the words “to explore” and “to add.”
Can you hear what is lost in rhythm, nuance and complexity?
As an exercise, take a paragraph from
your journal and copy or type it over, sentence by sentence. As you do
so, pause at the end of each sentence and ask yourself: Does this call
for elaboration? Do I have more to say here? If so, replace the period
with a comma or a dash and add a trailing element. Or two. Or three or
To write nothing but main clauses is to
write in a monotone. To write with subordinate elements is to vary your
rhythm, to pause to reflect, to add nuance and interest.
Take another example. Let’s say you are
Mary McCarthy, author of the memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood,
and you are recalling how it felt to be an orphan dependent on reluctant,
uncaring relatives. You write, “Whenever we children came to stay at my
grandmother’s house, we were put to sleep in the sewing room. It was a
room seldom entered by the other members of the family.”
Now do the exercise. Elaborate by
adding detail after each sentence.
Here’s the passage as it appears in the
“Whenever we children came to stay at my
grandmother’s house, we were put to sleep in the sewing room, a bleak,
shabby, utilitarian rectangle, more office than bedroom, more attic than
office, that played to the hierarchy of chambers the role of a poor
relation. It was a room seldom entered by the other members of the
family, seldom swept by the maid, a room without pride; the old sewing
machine, some cast-off chairs, a shadeless lamp, rolls of wrapping paper,
piles of cardboard boxes that might someday come in handy, papers of pins,
and remnants of materials united with the iron folding cots put out for
our use and the bare floor boards to give an impression of intense and
I don’t know the process McCarthy used
to write that passage. Maybe she recalled those evocative details the
first time through. Maybe she started with two simple declarative
sentences, then elaborated during a rewrite. Either way, I suspect that
listing the first details helped her think of the others and that working
with the trailing elements spurred her on, stimulating both her memory and
A sentence with this structure – main
clause, then one or more elaborating elements – is called a loose
sentence. If you reverse the order – one or more elaborating elements,
then the main clause – you have a periodic sentence, as you would have,
for instance, if McCarthy had written, “A bleak, shabby, utilitarian
rectangle, more office than bedroom, more attic than office, the sewing
room was where we were put to sleep.”
As you can see, the two types of
sentences produce different effects. The periodic sentence builds
suspense; the loose sentence invites reflection.
Consider the richness of the sentence
structures in the following passage from A Romantic Education, a
passage in which Patricia Hampl describes her childhood encounter with a
rag man and his horse:
“A large wooden wagon stood in the
street before me, a gray buckboard drawn by a huge sad horse. The wagon
was filled with tin cans, some bicycle tires, heaps of old clothes. An
old man, ancient and bearded like nothing I had seen on earth, held the
reins, sitting on a flat board which was slightly raised to form the
driver’s seat. His beard was long, yellowish, the grass of a life. I
wanted to sit next to him up there. I wanted to hold the reins of the
hardly moving horse. I wanted to go with him to the end of the block, the
end of the earth.”
There are many methods of joining
trailing elements to main clauses. Some work better than others.
Compare, for example, the last sentence in Hampl’s passage with this one:
“I wanted to go with him to the end of the block, which for me represented
the end of the earth.” As you can see, using “which” as the connector
does the job, but less artfully. In fact, an over-reliance on the
relative pronouns “which” and “that” as connectors is usually the sign of
an unrefined style.
Here are three good methods to connect
trailing elements to main clauses:
1. Connect by repeating.
This technique works best when the
repeated word is worthy of emphasis, like the word “end” in Hampl’s last
sentence. Likewise, compare “I enjoy recalling details from my childhood
that help me understand who I am today” with “I enjoy recalling details
from my childhood, details that help me understand who I am today.”
Repetition creates cadence, and cadence creates emphasis.
2. Connect by restating.
A second method of connecting trailing
elements and main clauses is with a word that restates or sums up what has
been said, a technique I am using in the sentence you are reading now.
(The word “technique” alludes to a previously expressed thought.)
3. Connect by modifying.
The third method of connecting trailing
elements is to use one of three types of modifiers: a present participle
(the -ing form of verb), a past participle (usually – but not
always – the same form as the past tense of the verb), or an adjective (a
word that describes a noun or pronoun). In
Keys to Great Writing, I illustrated
this point with these examples:
Modifying with a present participle:
“As a boy Bix Beiderbecke cared little
about schoolwork, preferring the piano to a book.”
Modifying with a past participle:
“Bix once sneaked abroad a riverboat,
drawn by the seductive notes of the steam calliope.”
Modifying with an adjective:
“Bix was happiest when he was playing
the cornet, oblivious to everything but his music.”
Whether you choose to connect by repeating, restating or modifying, to add
a trailing element is to invite yourself to pause, to reflect, to
consider, to think more deeply. And to invite your reader to do the same.