Introduction to Sentence Combining

The Problem

Many (most?) of my freshmen are most comfortable submitting essays that are constructed of a series of very simple sentences. That strategy probably comes from the "write the way you talk" strategy, combined with a fear of writing run-ons. The product often looks something like this:

She was our Latin teacher. We were in high school. She was tiny. She was a birdlike woman. She was swarthy. She had dark eyes. Her eyes were sparkling. Her hair was graying.¹

OK—perhaps your writing isn't that bad, but a series of simple sentences like that (even though they may be easy to write) makes the reader crazy.

So here is a rule: You always have several ways of writing anything. No content absolutely requires dull, boring, and choppy writing. Here are several ways that set of sentences could have been rewritten:

More problems

Spoken English does not do much with subordinate clauses, so you are not used to them if you have not done much reading, and relative clauses seem to cause special grief. I get a lot of writing like this:

These parts that in which make the automobiles are dumped into the ocean, for instance tires.
The unfit parenting of Rex and Rose Mary on their children was a tragic experience that made them a better person, in which who they are today.

Probably because of Twitter and phone messaging (with their extremely restricted space), students are losing track of prepositions—those small function words that describe the relation between ideas (and which, when you get them wrong, make your writing sound like it came from a foreigner). A preposition foul-up was the reason the first part of that last sentence did not sound quite right:

The unfit parenting of Rex and Rose Mary on their children was a tragic experience

How we will attack this

Our in-class exercises will be fill-in-the-blank writing exercises. No, there is not "right" answer that I'm looking for, and sometimes students come up with responses I have never considered—responses which are actually quite good. This kind of writing forces you to interact with those grammar bits that you have been avoiding or fouling up.


You will be tempted to sit there and sort of do the exercise in your head rather than writing it. Here's why that won't work:

Because of this pitfall, I promise that I will make a special point of calling on people who are not actually doing the writing. At the end of the class, I will collect your papers, and they will count for a grade.

¹This set of examples is from Nordquist, Richard. "Introduction to Sentence Combining." Grammar & Composition, New York Times, 2012, Accessed 13 June 2012.

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Revised 8/16/21 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: