Definition of a Sentence

Before elaborating too much on the nature of sentences or trying to define a sentence's parts, it might be wise to define a sentence itself. A sentence is a group of words containing a subject and predicate. Sometimes, the subject is "understood," as in a command: "[You] go next door and get a cup of sugar." That probably means that the shortest possible complete sentence is something like "Go!" A sentence ought to express a thought that can stand by itself, but it would be helpful to review the section on Sentence Fragments for additional information on thoughts that cannot stand by themselves and sentences known as "stylistic fragments." The various Types of Sentences, structurally, are defined, with examples, under the section on sentence variety. Sentences are also defined according to function: declarative (most of the sentences we use), interrogative (which ask a question — "What's your name?"), exclamatory ("There's a fire in the kitchen!"), and imperative ("Don't drink that!")

In Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 (IIiv), we see that great "stuffed cloak-bag of guts," Falstaff, in debate with his good friend Prince Hal, the future King of England. After a night of debauchery together, he is imploring his young friend not to forget him when Hal becomes King. The banter goes on, but the best part of it is Falstaff's last few sentences on the matter (talking about himself here — his favorite subject):

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.


The speech is quite a ramble, filled with Falstaff's lively good spirits. How can the Prince follow this? He does, with two little sentences:

I do. I will.

And there you have it. The prince knows he must someday, soon, renounce his life with Falstaff and turn to the responsibilities of ruling England. All the kinetic energy of Falstaff, manifested in the turns of phrase and rhythm in this speech, has been dammed up, thwarted and turned back by those two little sentences, four little words.

That's what variety of sentence length can do. Great expansiveness followed up by the bullwhip crack of a one-liner. It's not that one kind of sentence is better than the other (although the taste of the twentieth-century reader generally favors the terse, the economical). It's just that there are two different kinds of energies here, both potent. Use them both, and your prose will be energized.

The trouble is that many writers, unsure of themselves, are leery of long sentences because they fear the run-on, that troll under the bridge, forgetting that it is often better to risk imperfection than boredom.

What we need, then, is practice in handling long sentences. It is relatively easy to feel confident in writing shorter sentences, but if our prose is made up entirely of shorter structures, it begins to feel like "See Dick run. See Jane jump. See Jane jump on Puff." Primer style (pronounced "primmer" in the U.S.A.), it's called, and it would drive a reader crazy after a while.

Run-ons and Length

First, review the section of the Guide that defines Run-on Sentences. Remember that a really long sentence and a run-on sentence are not the same thing. Joseph Williams's fine book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Univ. of Chicago: 1990), enlists this monster of a sentence from Thomas Hooker, father of American democracy and founder of Hartford, Connecticut:

Now if nature should intermit her course and leave altogether, though it were but for awhile, the observation of her own laws; if those principal and mother elements of the world, whereof all things in this lower world are made, should lose the qalities which now they have; if the frame of that heavenly arch erected over our heads should loosen and dissolve itself; if celestial spheres should forget their wonted motions, and by irregular volubility turn themselves any way as it might happen; if the prince of the lights of heaven which now as a giant doth run his unwearied course, should, as it were through a languishing faintness, begin to stand and to rest himself; if the moon should wander from her beaten way, the times and seasons of the year blend themselves by disordered and confused mixture, the winds breathe out their last gasp, the clouds yield no rain, the earth be defeated of heavenly influence, the fruits of the earth pine away as children at the withered breasts of their mother no longer able to yield them relief — what would become of man himself, whom these things now do all serve?

—from Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

The modern reader might rebel at the complexity of those clauses piled one upon the other, and it does seem rather ponderous at first. In fact, if you were to write such a sentence in academic prose, your instructor would probably call you in for a conference. But if, as reader, you let yourself go a bit, there's a well earned delight in finding yourself at the end of such a sentence, having successfully navigated its shoals. And, as writer (avoiding such extremes), there's much to be learned by devising such monsters and then cutting them back to reasonable size.

Here are some hints about using long sentences to your advantage. The ideas here are based loosely on those in Williams' book, which we highly recommend, but with our own examples.


Allow the complexity of a longer sentence to develop after the verb, not before it. Click HERE to read a 239-word sentence (not a run-on, though) that succeeds grammatically but fails stylistically because it does way too much work before the subject-verb connection is made. Make the connection between subject and verb quick and vigorous and then allow the sentence to do some extra work, to cut a fancy figure or two. In the completer (predicate), however, be careful to develop the complex structures in parallel form.

Click HERE to visit our section on parallel form, most of which is taken from William Strunk's Elements of Style. Be sure to go through our "slide show" on the Gettysburg Address and closely examine the uses of parallelism in that classic speech.

Repeated Terms

One of the scariest techniques for handling long sentences is the repetition of a key term. It feels risky because it goes against the grain of what you've been taught about repetition. When properly handled, though, repetition of key words and phrases within a sentence and then within a paragraph not only holds things together but creates a rhythm that provides energy and drives the meaning home.

The Swiss watchmakers' failure to capitalize on the invention of the digital timepiece was both astonishing and alarmingastonishing in that the Swiss had, since the beginnings of the industrial revolution in Europe, been among the first to capitalize on technical innovations, alarming in that a tremendous industrial potential had been lost to their chief competitors, the watchmakers of Japan.

In the following sentences, from a speech by John F. Kennedy (dedicating the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College), observe how the repeated, parallel phrases pile up meaning in rhythmical waves:<

In America, our heroes have customarily run to men of large accomplishments. But today this college and country honors a man whose contribution was not to our size but to our spirit, not to our political beliefs but to our insight, not to our self-esteem, but to our self-comprehension. . . .

I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.

Amherst, Massachusetts
October 26, 1963

The same principle can apply to repeated whole sentences in a paragraph. Watch how President Kennedy drives home his point in the famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech:

There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.

Remarks in the Rudolph Wilde Platz
West Berlin: June 26, 1963

Renaming and Amplifying the Subject

Consider the following sentence, the way information is appended and feels tacked on.

Instead of using that clumsy "which clause," let's rename the event and follow it with a dependent clause that amplifies the added noun.

A Chain of Modifying Phrases

Try ending a sentence with a set of prepositional phrases or phrases, each beginning with a present or past participle. This device works well if used infrequently; used too often, it can lead to what some writers call purple prose as one modifying phrase piles up against the one before it. Used sparingly, however, it can create a wonderful music.

I see it now — the wide sweep of the bay, the glittering sands, the wealth of green infinite and varied, the sea blue like the sea of a dream, the crowd of attentive faces, the blaze of vivid colour — the water reflecting it all, the curve of the shore, the jetty, the high-sterned outlandish craft floating still, and the three boats with the tired men from the West sleeping, unconscious of the land and the people and of the violence of sunshine.

And we all nodded at him: the man of finance, the man of accounts, the man of law, we all nodded at him over the polished table that like a still sheet of brown water reflected our faces, lined, wrinkled; our faces marked by toil, by deceptions, by success, by love; our weary eyes looking still, looking always, looking anxiously for something out of life, that while it is expected is already gone — has passed unseen, in a sigh, in a flash — together with the youth, with the strength, with the romance of illusions.

Joseph Conrad
"Youth: A Narrative" (1902)

Resumptive and Summative Modifiers

By adding modifying phrases to the end of a sentence, a writer can take the reader in new, sometimes unexpected directions. A resumptive modifier picks up a word or phrase from a sentence that seems to be finished and then adds information and takes the reader into new territory of thought. Because resumptive modifiers are, by nature, repetitive, they tend also to add a sense of rhythm to a sentence. The following sentence (borrowed from above) employs this strategy twice:

A summative modifier quickly re-names or sums up what was going on in an earlier part of the sentence and then adds new information:

Variety in Modifier Placement

(This section was prepared by Kristin Zook, a student in Professor Karyn Hollis's Tutor Training course at Villanova University.)

QuizVariety in Modifier Placement

QuizVariety in Subject Placement

Unlike medicine or the other sciences, writing has no new discoveries to spring on us. We're in no danger of reading in our morning newspaper that a breakthrough has been made in how to write a clear English sentence—that information has been around since the King James Bible.

__ William Zinsser
in On Writing Well

Additional Hints on Variety

Try an occasional question, exclamation, or command. A question can be especially useful at the beginning of a paragraph where you want to summarize quickly what preceded and then launch into what will now follow. "And what were the results of this Proclamation of 1763?" This reminds your readers where you are in your discussion — Ah yes, that's what we're talking about — and prepares them for what comes next.

A command or directive provides direction and energy. Readers react to being grabbed by the collar and told what to do. It's hard to ignore, if not to resist. Tone is terribly important here. A bit of well-intentioned cajoling is usually more useful than in-your-face shouting. "Learning the principle of parallel structure can be the most important thing you learn in writing class. Learn it now!"

Try beginning an occasional sentence with something other than the normal subject-followed-by-verb order of things. Begin with a modifying clause or participial phrase instead. "After Pontiac's insurrection led to the Proclamation of 1763, a brief period of peace ensued. Having led his people in a successful resistance, Pontiac was astonished to discover how Indian tribal differences and individualism began, instantly, to erode their base of unified power."

Try beginning a sentence with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, nor, for, yet, or, so). Many writers have had it pounded into their skulls that if you begin a sentence with and or but that sentence should have been linked (instead) to the previous sentence in a compound structure. It goes against the grain to begin a sentence with and or but. But give it a try. A sentence beginning with a conjunction will almost always call attention to itself and it will always serve primarily as a connective device. If that's what you want, use it — but not so often that the effect gets out of control and becomes self-defeating.

Try using a variety of basic sentence structures. We can categorize sentences into four main types, depending on the number and type of clauses they contain:

  1. Simple (one independent clause):
    We drove from Connecticut to Tennessee in one day.
  2. Compound (more than one independent clause):
    We were exhausted, but we arrived in time for my father's birthday party.
  3. Complex (one independent clause and at least one dependent clause):
    Although he is now 79 years old, he still claims to be 65.
  4. Compound-complex (more than one independent clause and at least one dependent clause):
    After it was all over, my dad claimed he knew we were planning something, but we think he was really surprised.

QuizSentence Types

In terms of style, you will also find that sentences are classified as periodic or cumulative sentences. Periodic sentences begin with modifying phrases and clauses, sometimes piling them on, and then end with an independent clause, period.

If, instead of listening to the war-mongers of the military-industrial establishment, the politicians had only listened to what people had been writing in their letters and in the newspaper columns, if they had only listened to what the demonstrators had been shouting in the streets and on the campuses, if they had only listened to what was in their hearts, the war would have ended long ago.

Cumulative sentences, on the other hand, begin with the independent clause and then finish with a flurry of modifying constructions. See the sentences of President Kennedy above.

Again, it is not so much that one kind of sentence is to be preferred over another but that a good craftsperson uses the right tool for the right job and doesn't use the same tool all the time.

It does no good to be overly conscious of these sentence types in the first draft of your essay, but as you review your essay, keep in mind that too many sentences of any one kind — especially too many simple sentences — will be tedious for your reader. On the other hand, as we have seen, there is nothing like a brief sentence to drive home a point after a lengthy, rambling sentence. Try spicing up your prose by combining sentences into different structures.

See the Exercise on Avoiding Primer Style.

The most important thing you will derive from using a variety of sentence types is the shifts in tone that will result. Variety of sentence structure and type liberates your text from the monotone. Ezra Pound said that writing aspires to music, "which is the art of arts." Good academic prose is not poetry and it is not music, but there is surely no reason for it to remain on the dull plains of sameness.

Try using an occasional cleft sentence. The structure of a cleft sentence allows a writer to emphasize a part of a sentence in the same way that a speaker can emphasize part of a sentence using voice stress. We could say "Coach CALHOUN came up with the program of recruiting players from foreign countries." and by stressing the word "Calhoun" we let the listener know that we're distinguishing this coach from all others (in this particular context). To create the same kind of stress in writing, we can "cleave" (split) the sentence into two parts:

Or we could stress the idea of the PROGRAM in this way:

The cleft sentence usually uses it as the main subject with a to be verb; the real information in the sentence, oddly enough, follows in the predicate and then in a dependent clause beginning with a dependent word (usually who, which, or that).

Another form of the cleft sentence can be created with what (instead of it).

The what form of the cleft sentence will frequently take the main verb (and business) of the sentence and put it into an initial noun clause:


Cleft sentences are useful for putting stress in a sentence exactly where you want it, but they should be used sparingly, reserved for special occasions — like birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and the annual return of the buzzards to Hinckley, Ohio.

An emphatic sentence puts the stress on an auxiliary verb instead of some element after the verb, a complement or modifier. In normal intonation, we might say something like "The President was traveling to EGYPT yesterday," thus stressing how the President spent the day. If someone doubted the veracity of our statement, however, we might make our statement more emphatic by placing the stress of our intonation on the auxiliary: "The President WAS traveling to Egypt yesterday." In the absence of an auxiliary, the verb "do" is used to create emphasis: "The President DID spend the day in Egypt." The "to do" form has no effect on the meaning of the sentence except that it adds emphasis. Click HERE for more information of the uses and forms of the "emphatic do." Emphatic sentences are seldom used in academic, formal prose.

The picture of Falstaff (above, top of page) is a detail from Francis Hayman. Falstaff Raising Recruits, 1760s.