As Painless as Possible: Sentence Structure From a Non-Grammar Nazi Point of View


For all you creative writers and non-fiction writers still working on your manuscripts, let’s talk about sentence structure. This is something you can keep in mind while writing, or you can apply it during the editorial stages.

Either way, it’s important stuff.

Smart cookie that you are, you can probably guess what it means well enough. But here’s the Innovative Editing definition anyway to take us a little deeper:

Sentence Structure

From a strictly fiction or non-fiction book-writing standpoint, sentence structure is the way you arrange your sentences across each paragraph and page. Do they start out with pronouns, nouns, verbs, articles, adjectives, adverbs or conjunctions? Are they short or long?

From a strictly grammatical standpoint, they can also be simple or compound, complex or compound-complex. We’ll touch on those aspects briefly in the associated blog post. But that’s only to turn you into the best writer possible, not to bore you with grammar Nazi stuff.

Let’s get the grammar Nazi stuff out of the way first, rather like vegetables on your dinner plate. This stuff is healthy without a doubt, but that fact doesn’t mean there aren’t more interesting things you’d rather sink your teeth into.

So here’s the non-grammar Nazi version of grammar Nazi material. Being the nice editor that I am, I’ve included three examples per sentence type to best illustrate how short or long, skimpy or expressive each can be.

Simple Sentence – one that’s comprised of a single independent clause, plus any extra trimmings the writer would like to put in. Trimmings aren’t mandatory, but a subject (noun/pronoun) and verb are.

  • Terry yipped.

  • Terry yipped impatiently.

  • Terry yipped impatiently at his human.

Compound Sentence – one that involves two or more independent clauses joined by a conjunction (and, but, or, yet, etc.) or a semicolon.

  • Barbara ran, and Lydia ran.

  • Barbara ran fast, and Lydia ran faster.

  • Barbara ran as fast as she could, and Lydia ran faster still.

Complex Sentence – one that involves an independent clause and a subordinate clause, which is a subject and verb set that doesn’t complete a full thought by itself.

  • Elton’s glasses fell after Francesca hit him.

  • Elton’s glasses fell to the ground after Francesa hit him hard.

  • Elton’s glasses fell to the ground, shattered, after Francesca hit him hard with the tree branch.

Compound-Complex Sentence – one that involves two or more independent clauses and one or more subordinate clauses.

  • Allison ate the crackers after J.K. told her to, but she wasn’t happy about it.

  • Allison ate the rye crackers after J.K. told her to, but she wasn’t even close to happy about it.

  • Allison ate the unappealing rye crackers after J.K. told her to, but she wasn’t even close to happy about it: not about the texture nor the taste.

So that’s the – perfectly valid – grammar Nazi perspective. But if you brought your manuscript to a non-grammar Nazi editor like me, and I praised or critiqued your sentence structure, I’d be talking about things like:

  • The length of your sentences

  • How they begin

  • What emotion or emotions they convey.

We're all done with our grammatical vegetables now, but we're out of time to move onto the main part of the meal. So tune in on Thursday for what makes for strong sentence structure – creative writing style.

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