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Sentence Structures and Styles

Samples From a Scrapbook of Styles

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Sentence Structures and Styles

In our Scrapbook of Styles, you'll find over 100 short passages by writers ranging from Abbey, Amis, and Angelou to Welty, White, and Wolfe. Each passage illustrates one or more syntactic structures, rhetorical strategies, or methods of organization.

Enjoy this sampler of sentence structures and styles, and then visit the complete collection.


  • Verb Style in Annie Dillard's "Mirages"
    This short passage from Annie Dillard's essay "Mirages" illustrates her characteristic use of dynamic verbs. As Richard Lanham points out in Analyzing Prose, "The verb style wants to move fast."
    [I]n summer everything fills. The day itself widens and stretches almost around the clock; these are very high latitudes, higher than Labrador's. You want to run all night. Summer people move into the houses that had stood empty, unseen, and unnoticed all winter. The gulls scream all day and smash cockles; by August they are bringing the kids. Volleyball games resume on the sand flat; someone fires up the sauna; in the long dusk, at eleven o'clock, half a dozen beach fires people the shore. . . . Read more
    "Mirages" by Annie Dillard appears in her essay collection Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Harper & Row, 1982). A revised edition of Teaching a Stone to Talk was published by Harper Perennial in 1988.


  • Place and Polysyndeton in Joan Didion's "Goodbye to All That"
    A polysyndetic sentence style employs a great number of coordinating conjunctions (especially and and but). In this description of her first visit to New York City, Joan Didion uses polysyndeton to help convey her youthful enthusiasm and naiveté.
    When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again. . . . Read more
    "Goodbye to All That" by Joan Didion originally appeared in the collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968) and was reprinted in Didion's We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (Knopf, 2006).


  • Parataxis in John Steinbeck's "Paradox and Dream"
    In a paratactic sentence style, phrases and clauses are arranged independently--coordinated rather than subordinated. John Steinbeck's reliance on parataxis is evident in this excerpt from the essay "Paradox and Dream."
    We fight our way in, and try to buy our way out. We are alert, curious, hopeful, and we take more drugs designed to make us unaware than any other people. We are self-reliant and at the same time completely dependent. We are aggressive, and defenseless. Americans overindulge their children; the children in turn are overly dependent on their parents. We are complacent in our possessions, in our houses, in our education; but it is hard to find a man or woman who does not want something better for the next generation. Americans are remarkably kind and hospitable and open with both guests and strangers; and yet they will make a wide circle around the man dying on the pavement. . . . Read more
    "Paradox and Dream" first appeared in John Steinbeck's America and Americans, published by Viking in 1966.


  • Hypotaxis in James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son"
    In contrast to parataxis, hypotactic structures rely on subordinate clauses to establish clear relationships among different elements in a sentence. Note James Baldwin's use of adjective clauses and adverb clauses in this passage from his autobiographical essay "Notes of a Native Son."
    The only white people who came to our house were welfare workers and bill collectors. It was almost always my mother who dealt with them, for my father's temper, which was at the mercy of his pride, was never to be trusted. It was clear that he felt their very presence in his home to be a violation: this was conveyed by his carriage, almost ludicrously stiff, and by his voice, harsh and vindictively polite. When I was around nine or ten I wrote a play which was directed by a young, white schoolteacher, a woman, who then took an interest in me, and gave me books to read, and, in order to corroborate my theatrical bent, decided to take me to see what she somewhat tactlessly referred to as "real" plays. . . . Read more
    "Notes of a Native Son" by James Baldwin appears in the collection Notes of a Native Son, first published by Doubleday in 1955 and reprinted by Beacon Press in 1984.


  • Absolutes and Participial Phrases in Irwin Shaw's "The Eighty-Yard Run"
    Participial phrases and absolutes can add vigor to our writing while adding information to our sentences. In the opening paragraph of his well-known story "The Eighty-Yard Run," Irwin Shaw relies on these structures to re-create Christian Darling's few seconds of fleeting glory.
    The pass was high and wide and he jumped for it, feeling it slap flatly against his hands, as he shook his hips to throw off the halfback who was diving at him. The center floated by, his hands desperately brushing Darling's knee as Darling picked his feet up high and delicately ran over a blocker and an opposing linesman in a jumble on the ground near the scrimmage line. He had ten yards in the clear and picked up speed, breathing easily, feeling his thigh pads rising and falling against his legs, listening to the sound of cleats behind him, pulling away from them, watching the other backs heading him off toward the sidelines, the whole picture, men closing in on him, the blockers fighting for position, the ground he had to cross, all suddenly clear in his head, for the first time in his life not a meaningless confusion of men, sounds, speed. . . . Read more
    First published in Playboy magazine (May 1955), "The Eighty-Yard Run" appears in Irwin Shaw's Short Stories: Five Decades, originally published by Delacorte Press in 1978 and reprinted in 2000 by the University of Chicago Press.


  • Cumulative Sentences in "The Falls" by George Saunders
    "I like style," George Saunders once told an interviewer. "I like to sound odd and, hopefully, unique." In the long cumulative sentence that opens his short story "The Falls," Saunders achieves that distinction. Employing a running style, he starts out with a simple statement and then accumulates details that serve to amplify, qualify, and describe what has come before.
    The school sat among maples on a hillside that sloped down to the wide Taganac River, which narrowed and picked up speed and crashed over Bryce Falls a mile downstream near Morse's small rental house, his embarrassingly small rental house, actually, which nevertheless was the best he could do and for which he knew he should be grateful although at times he wasn't a bit grateful and wondered where he'd gone wrong, although at other times he was quite pleased with the crooked little blue shack covered with peeling lead paint and felt great pity for the poor stiffs renting hazardous shitholes even smaller than his hazardous shithole, which was how he felt now as he came down into the bright sunlight and continued his pleasant walk home along the green river lined with expensive mansions whose owners he deeply resented. . . . Read more
    Originally published in The New Yorker magazine, "The Falls" appears in the short story collection Pastoralia by George Saunders (Riverhead, 2000).


  • Sentence Variety in Alice Walker's "Am I Blue?"
    In these opening lines from the essay "Am I Blue?" Alice Walker relies on a variety of structures (participial phrases, adjective clauses, appositives, adverb clauses) to hold our attention as she develops her affectionate description of a horse named Blue.
    It was a house of many windows, low, wide, nearly floor to ceiling in the living room, which faced the meadow, and it was from one of these that I first saw our closest neighbor, a large white horse, cropping grass, flipping its mane, and ambling about--not over the entire meadow, which stretched well out of sight of the house, but over the five or so fenced-in acres that were next to the twenty-odd that we had rented. I soon learned that the horse, whose name was Blue, belonged to a man who lived in another town, but was boarded by our neighbors next door. Occasionally, one of the children, usually a stocky teen-ager, but sometimes a much younger girl or boy, could be seen riding Blue. They would appear in the meadow, climb up on his back, ride furiously for ten or fifteen minutes, then get off, slap Blue on the flanks, and not be seen again for a month or more. . . . Read more
    The essay "Am I Blue?" appears in the collection Living by the Word by Alice Walker (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988).

There's much more to enjoy (and learn from) in the Scrapbook of Styles: Nikki Giovanni's use of rhetorical anaphora, Jonathan Lethem's personification, Sarah Vowell's comparisons, Margaret Drabble's examples, Dave Barry's hyperbole, J.M. Coetzee's fragmented invective, and more than 100 additional passages from some of the finest British and American writers of the past 75 years.

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