Monday, April 13, 2015

Repetitive Sentence Structures

Many writers tend to prefer certain types of sentences over others. It’s not usually a conscious preference. It’s simply a particular format or type of sentence that comes naturally to a writer, one that they tend to use frequently because it is comfortable and instinctive. But it is possible for repeated use of similar sentence formats to make prose dull and repetitive. 

This is similar to the problem covered in this post, only now we're talking sentence structure instead of length. Here’s an example:

     Smiling, Raul opened the door to the house. With a gasp, Yasmin stepped inside, staring at the transformed entryway. Rose petals covered the floor and brilliant glass lanterns hung in rows from the ceiling. Taking her hand, Raul led the way along the rose-petal path.

There are four sentences in this example, and three of them follow a similar format: short opening phrase, comma, and the rest of the sentence. Try reading that out loud; it gets tiring, doesn’t it?

Which four-course meal looks more appetizing?
Sentence structure is like food; variety is usually preferable to repetition.
There is no hard and fast rule as to how much is too much when it comes to repeating sentence formats. Sometimes a paragraph can function just fine with several sentences of a similar style; other times, even just two similar sentences in a row will be too much. But it is safe to say that the more complicated the format of a particular sentence, the longer you should wait before using a similar format again.

The tricky thing about this problem is that it will be different for every writer. The sentence formats that come most naturally to me won’t be the same as the ones that come naturally to you. This makes it a bit harder to spot, since I cannot give you specific structures to look out for.

As is often the case with hard-to-spot problems, your best bet for this one is to gather together some discerning readers and ask them to keep an eye out for this problem. Reading your prose out loud will also make this problem easier to catch.

Once you’ve identified a repetitive passage, it will usually be pretty easy to fix. Here’s an edited version of our example above:

     Smiling, Raul opened the door to the house. Yasmin stepped inside with a gasp, staring at the transformed entryway. Rose petals covered the floor and brilliant glass lanterns hung in rows from the ceiling. Taking her hand, Raul led the way along the rose-petal path.

Simple, right? In this case, we only needed to alter one sentence to make the passage read more smoothly. Remember: repeated sentence structures grow bland and tiresome—try to get in the habit of varying things up regularly.


Okay, I was wrong—I remembered one specific type of sentence structure that tends to get repeated frequently which you should look for. 

Be careful to avoid beginning a series of sentences with the same pronoun (or its possessive form). For example:

     Raul dropped to his knees, clutching his stomach. He didn’t know what was causing it, but he suddenly felt like he was going to vomit out entire organs. He crawled slowly into the bathroom. His muscles spasmed with the pain, slowing him. He groaned with the effort of moving. Finally, he reached the toilet. He lifted the lid with shaking hands and positioned his head over the bowl, but nothing came out.

See the problem? That paragraph had seven sentences; four began with the word “he” and one began with an introductory phrase followed by “he” as the subject. Plus, the second sentence was a compound sentence with “he” as the subject of the second portion and the subject of the embedded clause at the end. That’s seven phrases beginning with “he” across seven sentences. Keep an eye out for any series of sentences that all begin with the same pronoun.


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