End With a Flourish: How to compose a powerful final sentence

(A version of this post originally appeared Feb. 2014)

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Many writers spend a lot of time in the early stages of the composition process perfecting their introductory paragraph, taking care to grab the reader’s attention with a great hook and laying out a convincing argument. By the time we get to the conclusion, we often get impatient and don’t spend the time drafting a compelling conclusion. Most often, a conclusion that falls flat isn’t about the content, but it’s more often a problem of last-line syntax.

What do I mean by syntax?

Syntax refers to the arrangement of words in a sentence, or the grammatical structure of a sentence. A particular sentence might have a variety of ways one could order the words and still derive the same meaning. Beginning writers (and even some experienced) sometimes give little thought to word order, and in body of paragraphs, it might not make a great deal of difference for a reader. However, a concluding line needs punch.  The conclusion should not only leave a strong message for the audience, but also communicate that message in a way to create the most emotional impact right down to the final word.

Look at the similar sentences in the examples below:

  • There is no more important issue than this.
  • There is no more important or more urgent issue.

At first glance, both seem okay. Both say about the same thing. But the second is better. Why? Because the final words, “urgent issue” leaves the reader with a more vivid image than the first example which ends with a vague phrase. In Example 1, the concluding word, “this,” a pronoun, leaves no strong image for the reader. The phrase, “There is no more important issue. . .” is placed in the slightly weaker position at the beginning of the sentence, so it offers less impact. We remember best what we read last.

The second example also utilizes parallel structure, “more important or more urgent . . .,” which works to reinforce the writer’s message by the use of repetition.

In the classic style book, The Elements of Style, Strunk and White say that “The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end.” Let’s take a look at two examples:
1)         Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.

2)         Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

 The second example has a greater emotional impact by concluding with the words, “advanced in fortitude.” These are considered emphatic words, or words that should require prominence in the sentence. The first example’s final phrase, “though it has advanced in many other ways,” is a bit vague, the words imprecise, which weaken the message.

Also notice the cadence of each example. Cadence refers to the musicality of language, the rhythm imparted on language which is influenced by how words are arranged in a sentence. In the first example above, “Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways,” has a falling rhythm. The ending of the sentence has no emphatic punch. It just kind of trails off. . .

In the second example, the rhythm has built to a crescendo as we approach the end of the sentence; this is done by placing a short dependent clause in the beginning position (“Since that time”), followed by a dependent clause (“humanity has advanced in many ways”), concluding with a flurry of repetitive, hard consonants, or alliteration, which creates a strong punchy conclusion. The rhythm of this syntax slows the reader down and places emphasis on the final words. Read the sentence again, but this time, read it aloud so you can hear:

Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

Do you hear the power at the end of the sentence? How does it sound different than the first example?

Readers read with their eyes, but we still hear what we read. That’s why all writers should read their work aloud. Even though we read in our head, we don’t get the full effect until we hear the words aloud.

Tips and Tricks

 When attempting to create a powerful concluding line, some words are better left for positions in their respective sentence other than the end. Pronouns and prepositions often weaken a sentence when placed in the final position. One of the most common pronouns that you should avoid placing in the final or power position of a concluding line is “it” – probably the most overused pronoun in student papers.

Think about what idea or image you want to leave the reader with and structure the final sentence accordingly. It’s often simply a matter of putting more thought into your sentence structure. Play around with word order, and read our earlier post on absolute phrases, which explains the different ways phrases can be arranged in a sentence.

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Below are some concluding lines from great literature. Consider why the authors made the choices they did, and how changing the word order might hurt – or enhance – the final lines.

All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.” –Voltaire, Candide

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

It’s old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to see by. –Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye

It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.   –Toni Morrison, Sula

He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.
–Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
–Willa Cather, My Ántonia

 

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Identifying Phrases and Clauses

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Learning the basic rules of sentence construction will help you identify the parts of a sentence that make up the whole. This will help you to avoid punctuation errors like comma splices, as well as give you the knowledge to create more complicated sentence structures, which will improve the style of your writing.

Phrases

A phrase is a group of words that form a single unit in a sentence, but do not include a subject, or a verb, or both. Since a phrase does not have a subject and/or verb, it does not form a complete idea or thought. Since a phrase does not contain a subject or verb, it cannot stand alone as a sentence, and is considered a fragment.

Examples of phrases:

  • closing the door
  • under the tree
  • because of his illness
  • running past the gate

In the previous examples, you’ll see nouns (door, tree, illness, gate) and verbals – or forms of a verb (closing, running) – but the nouns are not functioning as the subject of a sentence, and the verbals have no subject performing the action.

Types of Phrases:

  • Noun: his brand new bike; the stinky old cat
  • Prepositional: over the wall; in the bedroom
  • Verb: will be done; can swim
  • Verbal: There are 3 types of verbal phrases: participial, gerund, and infinitive.
    Participial: The pond, frozen over since early December, is now safe for ice-skating.
    Gerund: Cramming for tests is not a good study strategy.
    Infinitive: My goal is to be a teacher.
    Absolute: I stood on the dock, the lake breeze chilling me to the bone.
    Appositive: The book, a 600-page biography, received great reviews.

Clauses

A clause is a group of words that contain a subject and a predicate. A predicate is a word or phrase that describes the action or state of the subject. Predicates always includes verbs.

Unlike a phrase, a clause can be a complete sentence – if it has a subject and a predicate. This type of clause is called an independent clause, as it can stand alone independently, with no other words or phrases needed to make it a complete sentence.

Examples of independent clauses:

  • Fried green tomatoes are popular in the South.
  • The door remained closed.
  • The car sounded noisy.
  • I stood on the shore.

Unlike an independent clause, a dependent clause cannot stand alone as a sentence, even though it has a subject and a verb. A dependent clause is dependent on an independent clause as part of either the subject or the predicate.

Examples of dependent clauses:

  • while the wind was blowing.
  • which I made by hand.
  • although the room was cold.
  • because the pool was deep.

These examples begin with subordinate conjunctions – while, which, although, because – so do not form a complete thought. When we see subordinate conjunctions at the beginning of sentences, we expect extra information to complete the thought. These dependent clauses require other words to make a complete sentence.

Troubleshooting

Recognizing phrases and clauses will help you to avoid comma splices, fragments and run-on sentences. Look at the sentences below and identify which are complete sentences, and which are incomplete sentences. Can you identify the phrases and clauses?

  1. Driving across town in rush hour traffic.
  2. My head pounding.
  3. I answered the door.
  4. Talking on a cell phone in a restaurant.
  5. Call the babysitter.
  6. Because he wanted to.
  7. I stood silently.
  8. In the darkest corner of the room.
  9. To go to bed after midnight.
  10. Loud singing from the back of the room.

Improving Sentence Style

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Describing good style in writing is one of those things that is hard to explain. Like fashion sense or a winning personality, either you have it or you don’t. But you can learn how to improve your sentence style by following a few easy steps.

Avoid Using Vague Nouns

The words below are examples of vague nouns. Relying on vague nouns often leads to wordy construction, so it’s always best to avoid them if you can:

  • factor
  • aspect
  • area
  • situation
  • consideration
  • case

Examples

Vague: Consumer demand is rising in the area of services.

Precise: Consumers are demanding more services.

Vague: Strong reading skills are an important factor in students’ success in college.

Precise: Students’ success in college depends on their reading skills.

Vague: Photography took on new aspects during the Civil War.

Precise: The Civil War saw the advent of graphic battlefield photography.

As you can see in the examples above, the sentences become wordy and confusing when vague nouns are used. This often can impede rhythm in sentences, which hurts the flow. This means that the reader must slow down to read the sentence, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

 

Incorporate Absolute Phrases

If you’ve ever felt your essay plodding along in a repetitive “subject/verb/object” order, you probably could use some absolute phrases to enliven your rhythm and sharpen your style.

What exactly is an absolute phrase? An absolute phrase is a group of words that modify an independent clause. Just as an adjective modifies a noun, an absolute phrase modifies an entire clause.

Example:

Her arms folded across her chest, Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class.

In the sentence above, the absolute phrase is at the beginning of the sentence – Her arms folded across her chest.

The clause, Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class, is an independent clause, which means it can stand alone as a sentence. The absolute phrase (a dependent clause) is modifying this entire clause.

Building Sentences with Absolutes

Absolute phrases can be arranged in different positions in a sentence. In the example above, the absolute could be placed after the independent clause:

Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class, her arms folded across her chest.

Absolute phrases can also be placed in the middle of a sentence, between the subject and verb:

(S)                                                                                         (V)
Professor Smith, her arms folded across her chest, warned the students not to text in class.

Note that the absolute phrase is set off in the sentence with a pair of commas.

 

Eliminate Wordiness

Do you ever get your essays back from instructors with such comments as, “tighten,” “condense,” or “wordy”? What this means is that you are trying to communicate your point with more words than necessary. For example, note the difference in

“It is the opinion of our professor that we have failed to meet his expectations.”

and

“We have failed to meet our professor’s expectations.”

The second sentence is tighter, uses fewer words, and is stronger and more direct. Just remember, if you can communicate your point in fewer words, do it. Less is more.

Consider the following redundancies in italics:

Ex. 1:

It is absolutely essential that all students meet with their advisor on a regular basis.

If something isessential,” can it be any more essential withabsolutelyin front of it? Probably not.

Ex. 2:

The advance preview of Transformers scored big at the box office.

You might have seen this one in film reviews, or even on E TV. If a movie is a preview, doesn’t that mean it is in advance of the release?

Ex. 3:

In my personal opinion, everyone could benefit from eating more chocolate.

Everyone, at one time or another, has at least said this, if not written it. So what is wrong with this example? If it is your opinion, isn’t it personal?

Ex. 4:

The final outcome of the Literature exam was better than I expected.

The outcome of something is always final, right?

These are all examples of redundant words that create inflated sentences. Carefully edit your final drafts to make sure you’re not redundant.

Avoid Dangling Modifiers

A modifier is a word (or group of words) that qualifies or adds to the meaning of other parts of the sentence. A dangling modifier is created when the modifier is joined to the wrong words in the sentence.

To correct, make the “doer” of the action the sentence’s subject, as in the example below:

Wrong: Coming over the hill, the barn was seen. Who saw the barn?
Correct: Coming over the hill, we saw the barn.

Wrong: Having arrived late for practice, a written excuse was needed.

Who arrived late? This sentence says that the written excuse arrived late. The possible revision might look like this:

Correct: Having arrived late for practice, the team captain needed a written excuse.

The main clause now names the person (the captain) who did the action in the modifying phrase (arrived late).

 

Choosing the best words to express your ideas in the best possible way sounds easy, but often is more difficult than we think. Improving your writing style may take some time and effort, but by following a few simple rules, your writing will become more readable and your style will be the envy of your peers!

 

(Sources: Purdue Owl, Essentials of English Grammar, writing.wisc.edu/Handbook.)

End With a Flourish: How to compose a powerful final sentence

gone-with-the-wind
“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

I’ve been reading a lot of student essays recently that introduce their topics well, provide great sources, consider their audience, but then fall flat at the end. It isn’t a problem with failing to offer a restatement of thesis or offering a call to action. It’s more a problem of last-line syntax.

Syntax refers to the arrangement of words in a sentence, or the grammatical structure of a sentence. A particular sentence might have a variety of ways one could order the words and still derive the same meaning. Beginning writers (and even some experienced) sometimes give little thought to word order, and in body of paragraphs, it might not make a great deal of difference for a reader. However, a concluding line needs punch.  The conclusion should not only leave a strong message for the audience, but also communicate that message in a way to create the most emotional impact right down to the final word.

Look at the similar sentences below:

1)    There is no more important issue than this.

2)    There is no more important or more urgent issue.

At first glance, both seem okay. Both say about the same thing. But the second is better. Why? Because the final words, “urgent issue” leaves the reader with a more vivid image than the first example, which ends with a vague phrase. In example 1, the concluding word, “this,” a pronoun, leaves no strong image for the reader. The phrase, “There is no more important issue. . .” is placed in the slightly weaker position at the beginning of the sentence, so it offers less impact. We remember best what we read last.

The second example also utilizes parallel structure, “more important or more urgent . . .,” which works to reinforce the writer’s message by the use of repetition.

In the classic style book, The Elements of Style, Strunk and White say that “The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end.” Let’s take a look at two examples:

1)    Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.

2)    Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

The second example has a greater emotional impact by concluding with the words,   “advanced in fortitude.” These are considered emphatic words, or words that should require prominence in the sentence. The first example’s final phrase, “though it has advanced in many other ways,” is a bit vague, the words imprecise, which weaken the message. 

Also notice the cadence of each example. Cadence refers to the musicality of language, the rhythm imparted on language which is influenced by how words are arranged in a sentence. In the first example above, “Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways,” has a falling rhythm. The ending of the sentence has no emphatic punch. It just kind of trails off.

In the second example, the rhythm has built to a crescendo as we approach the end of the sentence; this is done by placing a short dependent clause in the beginning position (“Since that time”), followed by an independent clause (humanity has advanced in many ways), concluding with a flurry of repetitive, hard consonants, or alliteration, which creates a strong punchy conclusion. The rhythm of this syntax slows the reader down and places emphasis on the final words. Read the sentence again, but this time, read it aloud so you can hear:

Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

Do you hear the power at the end of the sentence? How does it sound different than the first example?

Readers read with their eyes, but we still hear what we read. That’s why all writers should read their work aloud. Even though we read in our head, we don’t get the full effect until we hear the words aloud.  

Tips and Tricks

When you are trying to create a powerful concluding line, some words are better left for positions in their respective sentence other than the end. Pronouns and prepositions often weaken a sentence when placed in the final position. One of the most common pronouns that has no place in the final or power position of a concluding line is “it” – probably the most overused pronoun in student papers.

Think about what idea or image you want to leave the reader with and structure the final sentence accordingly. It’s often simply a matter of putting more thought into your sentence structure. Play around with word order, and read our earlier post on absolute phrases, which explains the different ways phrases can be arranged in a sentence.

Below are some concluding lines from great literature. Consider why the authors made the choices they did, and how changing the word order might hurt – or enhance – the final lines.

All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.” –Voltaire, Candide

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

It’s old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to see by. –Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye

It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
–Toni Morrison, Sula

He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance. –Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
–Willa Cather, My Ántonia

 

5 Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing Today

 

Students come into our Writing Center every day and ask what they can do to improve their writing NOW. Good writing takes time and practice (and lots of reading) but there are a few things you can do immediately to strengthen your writing and wow your instructor before that next essay is due.

1.     Eliminate wordiness. Do you ever get your essays back from instructors with such comments as, “tighten,” “condense,” or “wordy”? What this means is that you are trying to communicate your point with more words than necessary. For example, note the difference in

“It is the opinion of our professor that we have failed to meet his expectations.”

and

We have failed to meet our professor’s expectations.”

The second sentence is tighter, uses fewer words, and is stronger and more direct. Just remember, if you can communicate your point in fewer words, do it. Less is more.

2.     Eliminate “that.”

“That” is often just a filler word. Look back over an old essay and see how many times you’ve used “that” in a sentence. Would the sentence make sense without that “that.” The last sentence could, and I bet about 75% of yours could too. For instance, look at the following sentence; the first “that” isn’t necessary. The second is:

“I only meant that I didn’t want to write that essay.”
or

“The only way that I can explain my point is by showing an example.”

See what I mean? Cutting that word out will make your writing more concise. But I needed that last one, and this last one too, so make sure it’s not necessary to communicate meaning.

3.     Be careful of piling on the prepositions. What’s a preposition, you ask? Space-related prepositions are anything a squirrel can do to a tree:

A squirrel can go around a tree
behind a tree.
in a tree.
on a tree.
toward a tree.
under a tree.
up a tree.

 Once you get on a prepositional roll, it’s hard to stop:

I will stay with the best friend of my sister at the cabin near the river in the valley between the two most beautiful mountains in Wyoming until February despite the weather.

 Sentences can go on forever with prepositional phrases, and that isn’t a good thing (see how I needed “that” in the previous sentence?).

4.     Throw in an absolute phrase. An absolute phrase works to modify an entire sentence. It consists of a noun plus at least one other word, as shown here:

The hunters rested for a moment in front of the shack, their breaths white in the frosty air.

 The first part of the sentence is independent: “The hunters rested for a moment in front of the shack.”
The second part of the sentence modifies the first part: “their breaths (noun) white (adjective) in the frosty air (prep. phrase).

You can move the absolute phrase to the beginning of the sentence as well:

Their breaths white in the frosty air, the hunters rested for a moment in front of the shack.

 Throw in some absolute phrases in your narrative essays to make them shine.

5.     Be active. Using active voice instead of passive voice in writing means the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb:

Edward loves Bella.
   (S)          (V)       (O)

as opposed to

Bella is loved by Edward.
  (O)         (V)              (S)

Sometimes passive voice is vague or awkward, and often the subject is left out. Politicians love using active voice and use it often:

Bombs were dropped (by who?).

Shots were fired (again, by who?).

Next time you read the paper, see how many times passive voice is used, and ask yourself if you are getting the whole story.

Try these 5 fool-proof techniques with your next assignment and share your results.

(Originally published Nov. 2, 2011)

5 Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing Today

(Repost from Nov. 2 2011)

Students come into our Writing Center every day and ask what they can do to improve their writing NOW. Good writing takes time and practice (and lots of reading) but there are a few things you can do immediately to strengthen your writing and wow your instructor before that next essay is due.

imagesCAOD8HKT

1. Eliminate wordiness. Do you ever get your essays back from instructors with such comments as, “tighten,” “condense,” or “wordy”? What this means is that you are trying to communicate your point with more words than necessary. For example, note the difference in

“It is the opinion of our professor that we have failed to meet his expectations.”

and

We have failed to meet our professor’s expectations.”

The second sentence is tighter, uses fewer words, and is stronger and more direct. Just remember, if you can communicate your point in fewer words, do it. Less is more.

2. Eliminate “that.”

“That” is often just a filler word. Look back over an old essay and see how many times you’ve used “that” in a sentence. Would the sentence make sense without that “that.” The last sentence could, and I bet about 75% of yours could too. For instance, look at the following sentence; the first “that” isn’t necessary. The second is:

“I only meant that I didn’t want to write that essay.” or

“The only way that I can explain my point is by showing an example.”

See what I mean? Cutting that word out will make your writing more concise. But I needed that last one, and this last one too, so make sure it’s not necessary to communicate meaning.

3. Be careful of piling on the prepositions. What’s a preposition, you ask? Space-related prepositions are anything a squirrel can do to a tree:

A squirrel can go around a tree behind a tree. in a tree. on a tree. toward a tree. under a tree. up a tree.

Once you get on a prepositional roll, it’s hard to stop:

I will stay with the best friend of my sister at the cabin near the river in the valley between the two most beautiful mountains in Wyoming until February despite the weather.

Sentences can go on forever with prepositional phrases, and that isn’t a good thing (see how I needed “that” in the previous sentence?).

4. Throw in an absolute phrase. An absolute phrase works to modify an entire sentence. It consists of a noun plus at least one other word, as shown here: The hunters rested for a moment in front of the shack, their breaths white in the frosty air.

The first part of the sentence is independent: “The hunters rested for a moment in front of the shack.” The second part of the sentence modifies the first part: “their breaths (noun) white (adjective) in the frosty air (prep. phrase).

You can move the absolute phrase to the beginning of the sentence as well:

Their breaths white in the frosty air, the hunters rested for a moment in front of the shack.

Throw in some absolute phrases in your narrative essays to make them shine.

5. Be active. Using active voice instead of passive voice in writing means the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb:

Edward loves Bella. (S) (V) (O)

as opposed to

Bella is loved by Edward. (O) (V) (S)

Sometimes passive voice is vague or awkward, and often the subject is left out. Politicians love using active voice and use it often:

Bombs were dropped (by who?).

Shots were fired (again, by who?).

Next time you read the paper, see how many times passive voice is used, and ask yourself if you are getting the whole story.

Try these 5 fool-proof techniques with your next assignment and share your results.

That was fun! What did I leave out? Any others you want to share?