Winston Churchill is one of the undisputed masters of English prose; and when he says something about writing, we have to listen. Here is what he says about his training in writing during his school days. Remembering his English teacher, Robert Somervell, Churchill says: “To him, my debt is great.” Somervell used to divide a long sentence into its component parts, “by means of black, red, blue and green inks”, and explain how the parts were interrelated. It was a kind of drill which helped Churchill to “get into his bones the essential structure of the British sentence, which is a noble thing”.
V. R. Narayanaswami
Today, many language teachers take their stand against this kind of dissection of sentences in teaching. Grammar is not to be taught, they argue; it should be absorbed in the process of using the language. Since the 1970s, the advocates of Communicative Language Teaching have been vociferous in condemning the use of drill as a teaching technique. From the first day, the learners should start using English and grappling with meaning. Errors, according to the new school of teachers, should be seen as steps in the learner’s progress towards mastery.
In spite of this changed attitude, there are still writers who believe that Somervell’s treatment of clauses is the right approach to the construction of sentences. One of the most valuable features of the English sentence is the mobility of clauses. Exploiting this mobility is a legitimate strategy to produce effective writing. A sentence of four clauses can theoretically produce 24 combinations. Half of these can be ignored. But the other half will give rise to several clause arrangements, which will create the most subtle differentiations of meaning, the most delicate nuances of style and attitude.
Good writers arrange the clauses of a sentence for achieving emphasis on what they consider important. If we think of the sentence as made up of a beginning, a middle and an end, the first and third positions carry the most weight. Writers often place the main idea in the final position, after the subordinate clause or clauses. These subordinate clauses can be clauses of time, place, cause, condition, or concession, or adjective and noun clauses.
In their classic Elements of Style, Strunk and White say: “The proper place for the word, or group of words, which the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end of the sentence.” In a later publication, W.H. Mittins of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne said, “It is not too great an exaggeration to say that skill in subordination is the first requisite of a successful writer.”
There are a couple of other tips on the use of sentence structure. One is that you should vary the length and structure of sentences. In the absence of variety of structure, the text would be monotonous. The second strategy is to express an important idea in a crisp, short sentence after a series of long and medium-length sentences, especially at the end of a paragraph.
Most writers’ manuals discourage the use of the passive voice. But it has a place in good writing, and sometimes it can be the appropriate form for the message. Reports of experiments by scientists usually take the passive form. But, when it is overused outside the discipline of science, it can weaken the statement. One use of the passive form is to avoid saying who the actor is, and divert the blame for the action. Example: “It has been decided that the degree awarded to the student be revoked.” In general, it is good practice to use the active voice where there is no special reason to use the passive. The active form is shorter and more dynamic.
When a writer sedulously seeks the best arrangement of words and clauses in a sentence, he gets rid of all flab. The sentence becomes tight and crisp. It gets tuned up for most efficient communication. The cardinal rule in good writing is: “Avoid wordiness”. Do not use two words where one will do. Go straight to the point and highlight what is important. Avoid clauses that introduce needless qualification and weaken the focus on the main statement. Your writing should carry your signature, your own style. Devices such as inversion, repetition and variation of sentence length can help to produce both content appeal and emotional appeal in your writing.
The lesson that Churchill learnt from Somervell is still relevant to us. Writing is one part spontaneous expression, three parts craftsmanship.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org