Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 10/26/2022

Episode 25: Strong Sentences

By Arthur E. Lawrence. Originally Published in 1904 in The Editor.

By this time it is perhaps safe to say that very nearly every aspiring writer knows that to end a sentence with a preposition is to deprive it of all force. Some wag, indeed, has formulated the rule after this fashion: “Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.”

Sound as the rule is, however, it is too narrow. A preposition is mentioned in particular, perhaps, because it is the weakest word that can possibly be placed at the end of a sentence. Yet there are many others that are only a step higher in strength, and that are used by writers who would laugh at the idea of ending with a preposition. The best way to emphasize the matter will be to make it perfectly clear.

Grammarians have told us that the first and last words of a sentence should be the strongest. Such words as “of,” “with,” and the like, are unquestionably the weakest. This fact of itself explains the rule as to prepositions.

A very slight interchange of words often gives the effect desired. As a homely example, the first sentence of the preceding paragraph may be considered. It is certainly stronger in its present form than it would be if written, “We are told by grammarians that the strongest words of a sentence should be the first and last ones.” The points to be emphasized in the sentence are the secondary one that the rule is backed by grammarians and the primary one that certain words are the strongest.

Words of transition, says another rule, should come, not at the beginning of the sentence, but in the first natural pause. This rule serves a double purpose. First, by example it teaches that an explanatory clause, such as, ‘‘says another rule,” should likewise come in the first natural pause, and that in the “not. . . .but” construction the “not” phrase should come first invariably. Second, it states the rule that such words as “however,” “therefore,” and similar ones, should come in the first natural pause.

Not only do these general rules apply to a sentence, but also to paragraphs. One of the weakest constructions possible is that in which a paragraph concludes with some form of “he said.” “ ‘Yes, we are going for a walk. Won’t you come with us?’ she asked,” will serve as an example. The error is obvious, and the rule may be framed: The forms of “he said” should come not at the beginning nor end of a speech, but either in the first natural pause or at the end of the first clause.

The same rule will hold good for the weakly-constructed paragraphs of description ending with a “said he,” used to introduce the speech in the following paragraph. The fault lies in using a weak phrase in a strong position.

It is well understood that changing the natural order of words also adds to the strength of a sentence. To choose a simple example, we find that the epigram, “To the pure all things are pure,” grows ridiculously weak in its natural order, “All things are pure to the pure.” At first glance, it would seem that the idea of strong words at the beginning and end has nothing to do with this construction, yet a slight analysis will prove that the two emphasized points are the phrase, “to the pure,” and the word, “pure.” The unnatural order of words, then, has strength only because it conforms to the rule as to position.

The two forms of the epigram just quoted illustrate another point of strength. In its familiar form, “To the pure all things are pure,” it is periodic sentence. In its modified form, it is a loose sentence. “I never knew a young writer,” a prominent editor once said, “whose style was too periodic; I knew only a few whose style was not too loose.” A word of warning may not be out of place in urging writers to acquire a periodic style. It is simply that periodicy tends to destroy simplicity and naturalness.

Still another rule bearing on strength of sentences must not be overlooked. Merely to quote it should be sufficient. To secure force, put your sentences in the active voice. So ineffective has the alternative become that it is familiarly known as the “weak passive.”

These suggestions should afford a spur to revision. If the writer corrects the errors for a time, he will find that soon the sentences will shape themselves naturally in the forms that are strongest. The lesson learned means fluency of style.