Writing Tips

On Sentences, Syllables and Simplicity

You can learn a lot from paying attention to the way sentences are constructed, and the way they work.  Especially sentences or paragraphs that ‘speak’ to you, or have a powerful effect.

Here’s an example of a simple sentence and some illuminating analysis.  The analysis iss from Stephen King’s On Writing, about a sentence from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (Centennial Edition).

First, the Steinbeck sentence:

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold.

And what King says:

The Steinbeck sentence is especially interesting.  It’s fifty words long. Of those fifty words, thirty nine have but one syllable.  That leaves eleven, but even that number is deceptive; Steinbeck uses because three times, owner twice, and hated twice.  There is no word longer than two syllables in the entire sentence.  The structure is complex; the vocabulary is not far removed from the old Dick and Jane primers.

Interesting, isn’t it?

Joanna Young, The Confident Writing Coach
Because our words count

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17 Responses to “On Sentences, Syllables and Simplicity”

  1. On December 17, 2008 at 10:38 am Jim Murdoch responded with... #

    Yes, I suspect there are very few complicated things in this life that couldn’t be explained in words of one or two syllables given a little thought.

    Jim Murdochs last blog post..There are too many words on the Internet

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  2. On December 17, 2008 at 11:25 am Brad Shorr responded with... #

    Yes! Very interesting, although it might lose its effect if he had written the entire book that way. But truly, complex ideas and deep feelings can and should be expressed in plain language - big words distract from meaning. The Bible, especially the New Testament, is another example. The Parables of Jesus could hardly have been written in plainer language, and yet we’ve pondered them for centuries.

    Brad Shorrs last blog post..Gasoline Costs and the Psychology of Pricing

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  3. On December 17, 2008 at 2:20 pm Karen Swim responded with... #

    Hi Joanna! Happy Anniversary! :-) I remember reading that passage in King’s book. I was am still am amazed that such simplicity was so powerful. As I think of it now, I suppose simplicity conveys a raw honesty. We strip away the layers and allow the moment/thought/idea/feeling to shine rather than the words. Yet simplicity is not simple. It takes a gifted writer to pack a powerful punch in a few words.

    Karen Swims last blog post..Drunk with Power

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  4. On December 17, 2008 at 3:43 pm SpaceAgeSage -- Lori responded with... #

    It’s also interesting that by using the single-syllable words, he conveys the hard, base nature of the situation the men faced.

    SpaceAgeSage — Loris last blog post..Your kind of neighborhood … or not?

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  5. On December 17, 2008 at 7:23 pm Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Jim, indeed… although I guess it’s the time and effort for the thought that tends to stand in our way.

    Brad, I suppose what I found interesting was thinking about the deliberate use of syllables for effect - to slow things down, speed them up, or make for the hard, dull repetition that you get in a sentence like that. Thoughas you say allowing stories to tell themselves by using plain language makes a big difference too.

    Karen, yes, I like the phrase ‘raw honesty’. These kind of sentences seem to come from a different place - darker, deeper, harsher, but also more beautiful. I also like ‘simplicity is not simple’. I think that’s what I’m learning this month!

    And yes, happy anniversary! A whole year of enjoying your comments here. My blog has been so much the brighter because of it.

    Lori, yes, I too was interested in how you could use single syllables to create that kind of impression, and also create contrast and effect by using two word syllables (or longer if he’d chosen to.) I’m sure sometimes we’d find ourselves doing this in our writing without thinking, but I found it interesting to look behind the words a bit to the rhythm and pattern that was reinforcing the meaning.

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  6. On December 17, 2008 at 8:48 pm Davina responded with... #

    Hi Joanna. I love your blog! I wish I’d found it sooner. Words make a HUGE difference in expression.

    I just Stumbled your post “How To Plan A Month’s Worth Of Posts In 30 Minutes Flat”. Thank you… I’ve been calling for my muse… and she has arrived.

    Davinas last blog post..A Positively Dysfunctional Christmas

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  7. On December 18, 2008 at 7:24 am Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Davina, well I’m glad you’ve found us now anyway :-) Thanks for stumbling that post. I’ve really enjoyed seeing how much people value that one, and indeed have put the ideas into practice.

    Cheers

    Joanna

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  8. On December 18, 2008 at 9:36 am J.D. Meier responded with... #

    I like that.

    It reminds me of a mind hack to simplify your writing … it’s not the length that makes a sentence tough to understand, it’s how long you wait for the phrases to be completed.

    I think it’s the text version of the Gestalt Grouping Principles.

    J.D. Meiers last blog post..My Favorite Personal Development Books

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  9. On December 18, 2008 at 2:12 pm Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome responded with... #

    What I like most about the Steinbeck sentence is its rhythm. It flows beautifully and I think it’s because of the repeated words and simple language.

    Alex Fayle | Someday Syndromes last blog post..Are You Motivated or Held Back by Fear?

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  10. On December 18, 2008 at 5:50 pm Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    JD that’s an interesting insight into how language/our minds work. I guess there are times when we want to leave those loops open for longer too, for effect.

    Alex, yes, it’s the rhythm he creates that I think is most powerful too.

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  11. On December 19, 2008 at 9:11 am wilson responded with... #

    WoW, a very sharp and descriptive review from King, Joanna. I guessed this is the different between me and Stephen King…

    wilsons last blog post..A Fast Recap Of WillYouMind For 2008!

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  12. On December 19, 2008 at 11:19 am Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    But he doesn’t have such a sharp sense of humour :-)

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  13. On December 21, 2008 at 11:59 am Rolf responded with... #

    If so, for how long can one keep copy and words as short and sweet as that? Soon a long word will show up and ruin the mood. Like churchstate. Many try to split them. Damn antidisestablishmentarianism!

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  14. On December 21, 2008 at 12:39 pm Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Rolf, there’s no doing without longer words. I think words like writing should be as short as possible… but no shorter. There’s probably no getting round antidisestablishmentarianism!

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  15. On December 27, 2008 at 12:03 pm Ken Allan responded with... #

    Kia ora Joanna.

    Thanks for your advice in this wonderful post. You outline what I think is part of the poetry of good writing.

    Seventeen years ago, I took an interest in reading the poetry I left behind in the desks at school in the 60s. I read the work of every poet I could get my hands on, ancient and modern. I still do.

    I was struck by the beauty of Shakespeare’s writing, especially his sonnets. The sonnet is a form I adopted eventually in my own writing, but only after I’d unlocked a few of the things you mention here.

    In Shakespeare’s sonnets, there is a uniform syllable:word-count ratio throughout. Some of his most beautiful sonnets have well over 110 words. In that most of his sonnets contained 140 syllables, this meant most words he used were of only one syllable - much the same pattern that you outline here.

    John Keats, whose poetry I adore, is similarly endowed with pure simplicity. The opening lines of his Hyperion, for instance, is heavy with this:

    ‘No stir of air was there,
    Not so much life as on a summer’s day
    Robs not one light seed from the feather’d grass,
    But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.’

    In 34 words of the above fragment there are 32 syllables!

    Wynstan Auden chose a similar pattern of simplicity when he wrote, as did Robert Frost:

    ‘And then there was a pile of wood for which
    I forgot him and let his little fear
    Carry him off the way I might have gone,
    Without so much as wishing him good-night.’
    The Woodpile

    It is a strong writing tool if it’s used with skill and thought.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

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  16. On December 28, 2008 at 7:51 am Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Ken, thanks so much for those additions, and helping me to understand the role of both syllables and simple writing - in the best sense.

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