Short Sentences

Tomorrow in ENGL328, we’re working with “Short Sentences,” the first chapter in Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. The chapter presents four basic sentence types or kernels: equations with be, equations with linking verbs, transitives, and intransitives. In the first half of the chapter, Tufte attaches numerous examples to each type of short sentence. I find the types to be fairly intuitive and, perhaps because they are short, easy to identify. Only the equations with linking verbs give me pause because the linking verbs tend to stoke a deeper philosophical question concerned with being and transformation, i.e., whether the subject is altered by the piling on of noun complements.

In the second half of the chapter, Tufte switches scales, moving from the local logic of these four sentences to their paragraph-cumulative effect, whether one type is deployed repeatedly or whether they are working in combination with other types. Here the idea is basically that the two equative types stroll along at a slow pace, intransitives elicit slightly more movement or action, and transitives deliver the most bang because they maximize one thing’s verbing of another thing (the direct object, required for the transitive form). Tufte’s paragraph-long examples highlight the cumulative effect of these short sentence types in context.

A couple of tweets from students today have forewarned me (whether they were meant for me or not) that we will have a fair amount of skepticism to work through tomorrow. As far as I can tell (from their own short sentences, of course) the value of this framework is in doubt. That’s fair. And, in fact, I’m glad to see that they are not only reading Tufte but tweeting about it before class. I think of Tufte’s opening chapter as offering both an analytic method and a heuristic, or generative guide, for revision. The analytic method amounts to a vocabulary and a set of techniques for differentiating sentence types. It’s difficult, without seeming enamored of current-traditionalism, to say that grasping such principles as these helps writers. But it does offer us a scheme for talking about prose style, for pinpointing in yet one more way a sentence’s distinction.

Also, I’m interested in establishing tension between Tufte’s approach and Lanham’s Paramedic Method, which we will look at for Wednesday. Lanham, after all, insists on the importance of concrete subjects and action-packed verbs. Tufte’s attention to equatives and to pacing lends something of value to the subject-verb or character-action patterns so conspicuous in Lanham’s method (also in Williams’ Style). So, while I recognize the value in keying on vivid subject-verb couplings relatively early in sentences, I also appreciate Tufte’s recognition that equative forms may bear strategically on the acceleration (or idling speed) of a passage.


  1. No hurry, but I have to ask: In what sorts of writing situations do you pay attention to this level of meta-awareness in your own practices? Please don’t take that as accusatory. I firmly believe that you do, and in an effective manner. I’m looking for advice/insight rather than explanation.

    Reason: My pre-Phd-background is as a poet at the U of Colorado. I paid attention not just to sentence structure, but to rhythm, pitch, and texture as well. But to much less a degree, now, in my academic work. I find myself paying attention to syntax and construction still quite a lot, but rarely in terms of variation. Mostly to get my sentences as content-packed as possible. And the habit has now become a drag on my writing in a bunch of ways. A complex but monotonous style. Incredibly slow composing processes. Frequent stalls in the writing process as the complexity of one sentence bleeds into the complexity of another. Thus moving the style from a nuanced set of ideas into an ambient, unclear muddle.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that I sense that I could learn much from the Tufte book (I just ordered in via your link). I’m wondering about the extent to which you consciously apply these sorts of frames to your own work, when you do it, and which sources you find most useful (to your own work, as opposed, if necessary, to early undergraduate styles of writing).

    Long comment. Apologies. I don’t expect a reply, necessarily, and certainly not soon. Wishing you the best…


  2. That’s a good question, Trauman. I don’t take it as accusatory at all. In fact, I’d say it’s the elephant in the room, so to speak, any time we study syntax patterns as an aspect of prose style: What do we do with this?

    I’m new to Tufte. When I talked with Louise Phelps about ENGL328, she said I should check out Virginia Tufte’s work, and so I did (all the more intrigued, by the way, that Virginia Tufte is the mother of data visualization guru Ed Tufte). Reading Tufte now, I think it adds dimension to the commonplace about preferring tangible subjects and action verbs (the more movement the better). In the past, both in writing center consulting and in my own efforts to revise, I have found Richard Lanham’s Paramedic Method immensely useful. His steps are simple, straightforward, memorable. That is, I can apply the Paramedic Method as a quick check to make sure I haven’t fallen into a pattern of relying on nomiminalizations for subjects, that I haven’t buried vivid verbs in clauses, and that I haven’t tried to introduce too much context by stringing together prepositional phrases. When working as a writing consultant, I found the method helpful for squaring with those moments when we ask “What the heck is going on here?” The writers who came to the Writing Center seemed to like its granularity, too. It gave them steps they could follow, steps that helped them focus on properties of sentences that, absent the method, seemed all jumbled together.

    More to the point: I don’t write acutely mindful of these principles. And I don’t know whether anyone should. I mean, perhaps we can get by writing rawer, felt drafts if we have a repertoire of tactics for adjusting later when something doesn’t seem quite right. But I do appreciate the way Tufte’s work pushes me to be more conscientious about patterns and their cumulative effects. After all, short sentences can deliver relief and emphasis.

  3. I’ve had my eye on Tufte’s book for a while. I think it’s high time I buy it. Just the other day a colleague asked if I had a source which discussed paragraphs and complemented Williams.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to reply, Derek. Thoughtful. Tufte’s book will be in a day or two. Your posts are having a tangible impact on the world. How do you like that?

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