A Quiz About Combining Sentences

By Mark Nichol

One of the most useful techniques for tightening flabby prose is to concentrate more information into fewer words. This can be done with parenthesis and subordination. The result is that two or more sentences are combined into a single statement.

Let’s try that again: One of the most useful techniques for tightening flabby prose is to concentrate more information, through parenthesis and subordination, into fewer words, with the result that two or more sentences are combined into a single statement.

The outcome is a more complex construction — and one that is not necessarily much more concise — but one that is still digestible and creates a richer reading experience by collecting flat, simplified, isolated components of thought into an integrated whole. Not every multisentence passage merits combination, of course (and I admit that I favor longer sentences than some might find suitable), but vigilant effort to reduce verbiage has merit.

Try this sentence surgery yourself with the following examples, and compare your results with my solutions:

1. “The Democratic presidential candidates had all been doing lousy imitations of Dean’s Bush-bashing road show. They noticed that his spiel was playing so well with the lefties in the North.”

The second sentence folds easily into a parenthetical phrase placed within the first sentence; just omit the pronoun and change the verb form: “The Democratic presidential candidates, noticing that Dean’s spiel was playing so well with the lefties in the North, had all been doing lousy imitations of his Bush-bashing road show.”

2. “Christian leaders were used to spending a lot of time worrying about the faith of the unchurched. They were stunned to learn that the kids who showed up every week in the pews — the churched — didn’t know much more than those who didn’t.”

The solution here is nearly identical to that in the first example, differing only in form; omit the first of the two repetitions of the verb were and delete the second sentence’s subject, but leave the form of stunned intact: “Christian leaders used to spending a lot of time worrying about the faith of the unchurched were stunned to learn that the kids who showed up every week in the pews — the churched — didn’t know much more than those who didn’t.

3. “The document addressed many issues that had been circulating in the government and industry sectors for the past several years. These issues were economic, military, and social in nature.”

Here, the word count can be even further reduced by incorporating the second sentence in to the first one after deleting the verbose “issues . . . in nature” construction; relocate the subject so that it follows the series of adjectives: “The document addressed many economic, military, and social issues that had been circulating in the government and industry sectors for the past several years.”

4. “The group meets once a week. During each meeting, students participate in a mini-lesson that explains specific conventions or spelling patterns.”

The first sentence has only one essential word in it: week. Slip its adjectival form into the second sentence before meeting and discard the rest, though you could, for more clarity, insert “in the group” after students: “During each weekly meeting, students [in the group] participate in a mini-lesson that explains specific conventions or spelling patterns.”

5. “The series has featured writings by a variety of French thinkers. It culminated in the publication of a two-part meditation by Jean d’Ormesson. This man was a well-known literary figure and member of the academy.”

As I demonstrated in my introduction to this post, three sentences, not just two, can be reconstructed into one; in this case, convert all but the subject of the first sentence into a parenthetical for the second one, replace that sentence’s subject with the preceding one’s, and attach the third sentence to the second sentence as a subordinate clause: “The series, which has featured writings by a variety of French thinkers, culminated in the publication of a two-part meditation by Jean d’Ormesson, a well-known literary figure and member of the academy.” Voilà!

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5 Responses to “A Quiz About Combining Sentences”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    The subtle dance with the sentences is always intriguing and confounding at the same time. Getting the right words together and arranging them can mean the difference between getting published and languishing in obscurity. Guess which one is happening to me?

    Looks like it is time to go back to the sentence grind house. Thanks for sharing!

  • Bill Polm

    Thank you, a smart and needed post. I agree.

    There are a lot of strong trends and biases going today when it comes to the writing craft.

    For example: “Be concise, make every word count, no empty words like “very” or “really” or “it seems to me,” etc.” But if the writer strips sentences down to an almost mechanical terseness, they can easily become hard to read too, not to mention lose their warmth and conversational quality.

    Another example, what I call “the minimalist sentence”: “Major in constant short sentences, peppered with frequent sentence fragments.” Is it always a good idea to accommodate the contemporary reader’s all-too-often short attention span? How about encouraging thoughtful comprehension?

    A Suggestion for you: sometime look into the work if the late, brilliant Dr. Frances Christensen in his Notes Toward A New Rhetoric, Six Essays for Teachers (University of Southern California). You could also check out the Great Courses lecture series (The Teaching Company) on “Building Great Sentences” by the award-winning professor of English and literature Dr. Brooks Landon (University of Iowa)–both on the cumulative sentence, which I feel is the grammatical/syntactical genius of modern English.

  • Nancy Vander Meer

    I have the same question as Bill Polm. What if we’re writing for a “newspaper audience” and are supposed to keep the comprehension level to 6-8th grade? It’s the dilemma of short choppy writing (keeping the attention span of our audience) vs. appealing sentences that flow and create interest. My editor and I go back and forth on this.

  • Todd

    I know this wasn’t exactly the topic, but I frequently run across sentences in my editing that are far longer than necessary.

    For instance:

    “All entrances into the facility have high security tube stiles, which require individuals to use a proximity key card in order to gain access into the building. ”

    You can easily edit those 27 words down to the following 9:

    “Facility entrances require proximity card-activated tube stile access.”

    That’s a 2/3 reduction in word count without losing any meaning. Although, I admit I am not 100% certain about the usage of the hyphen in that sentance.

  • Todd

    Yikes! I need an editor. I hope everyone caught my misspelled word. 😉

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