A period at the end of a sentence is like a dam in a river: it creates an artificial barrier that interrupts the flow. Yet water cannot be contained forever, and in the same way our ideas overflow each individual sentence.
This is what making writing so difficult: how do we take a complex argument and split it up into so many smaller units? This page will teach you some strategies for connecting your sentences in a natural way.
Take a look at the following sentences and how they connect to each other:
In 1946, George Orwell wrote “The Politics of the English Language.” The essay argues that much of our writing is imprecise and pretentious. The reason that Orwell argues this is that in his experience people are lazy when it comes to picking the right word. An example of such laziness would be when we pick what Orwell calls a dead metaphor. An example of a dead metaphor would be when you say, “these hemorrhoids are a real pain in the neck.” This is a dead metaphor because hemorrhoids are not literally a pain in the neck.
The writing in this passage is rather laboured. Each sentence overlaps with the previous one, as if we continually need to pick up the thread again.
Such a writing style is not unusual among university students, and it’s caused by two contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, students tend to construct each sentence as a separate idea, not fully realizing that with a bit of editing sentences can be combined or split up. We can see that in the first sentence, which contains very little content and can easily be combined with the second one:
Original: In 1946, George Orwell wrote “The Politics of the English Language.” The essay argues that much of our writing is imprecise and pretentious.
Revision: In his essay “The Politics of the English Language” (1946), George Orwell argues that much of our writing is imprecise and pretentious.
By contrast, the second tendency is a kind of overcompensation for having isolated each idea in the first place. Now the student tries very hard to create connections. This is why so many sentences express a cause and effect relationship (“The reason …”; “This is … because”) or use formulaic phrasing (“An example would be”).
Somehow we have to find a balance between these two tendencies.
Parataxis and Hypotaxis
Sentences and clauses are a bit like people: some are entirely self-absorbed, whereas others interact well with others. Sentences that act as if there’s no one else are called paratactic sentences. These sentences don’t use many connecting words or transitional expressions. To be precise, they don’t use subordination; every clause is treated as equally important:
Chameleons are remarkable creatures. They have very long tongues and are famous for being able to change the colour of their skin. They have special cells called chromatophores. Chromatophores contain different pigments. Chameleons change their colour to regulate their body temperature and to communicate with other chameleons.
If your prose is primarily paratactic, it will come across as choppy and it may be difficult for the reader to follow your train of thought.
By contrast, the term hypotaxis refers to a writing style where clauses are subordinated to each other. Hypotactic prose includes more dependent clauses (and, by extension, more conjunctions):
Although AirBnB is often seen as a great company that promotes sharing spaces and having an adventure, it is also responsible for causing a housing crisis in many major cities. Since homeowners can earn more from renting out their home to tourists than to locals, they turn to AirBnB. Not only is this the case while owners are away on a brief holiday, but it has become common for properties to be permanently available on AirBnB.
You’ll notice that this passage is full of subordinating conjunctions (although, that, since). This style creates more connections, but it also has a weakness. If all your prose is consistently hypotactic, it requires more effort to understand. Hypotactic sentences are typically longer and more complex.
The thing to realize, then, is that good writers use a mix of paratactic and hypotactic sentences. Good writers think about such things as pacing and tone, and vary their sentences accordingly. So experiment with parataxis and hypotaxis and you will gain more control of your writing.
One of the greatest skills you can develop is being able to merge shorter sentences. The point is not that longer is better. Rather, being able to move sentence parts around allows you to connect and express your ideas more effectively.
Here are a few strategies for making connections.
As mentioned, subordination makes your sentences hypotactic. Making one clause dependent on another allows you to create hierarchy and order:
Original: At the outset of World War I, Belgium was a neutral country. Germany asked to move troops through Belgian territory. Belgium refused and was drawn into the war.
Revision: Although Belgium was neutral at the start of World War I, it was drawn into the war when it refused Germany’s request to move troops through Belgian territory.
Notice too that form matches content: the fact that the clauses are all connected mirrors the way one action led to another.
You can also combine sentences by turning clauses into phrases. Often these phrases will include participles (e.g., training, trained):
Original: Boris trained at high altitude. He shaved a minute off his 5 km time.
Revision 1: After training at high altitude, Boris shaved a minute off his 5 km time.
Revision 2: Having trained at high altitude, Boris shaved a minute off his 5 km time.
Another effective way to combine sentences is to use an appositive phrase.
Original: Tina Turner is a famous American singer. In 2013 she became a Swiss citizen.
Revision: In 2013, Tina Turner, the famous American singer, became a Swiss citizen.
Incidentally, you can also use a relative clause to insert information in the middle of a clause:
Tina Turner, who has long lived near Zurich, became a Swiss citizen in 2013.
You won’t always want to combine sentences, but you can still connect them in any number of ways. Most often you’ll use a conjunctive adverb or transitional expression.
Daniel wanted to buy a log cabin home. However, his wife preferred something more modern.
We love dining out. Nevertheless, for the sake of our bottom line (pun intended), we are eating at home for an entire week.
The challenge with conjunctive adverbs is that it’s easy to rely on them too much. If every sentence starts with moreover, thus, or therefore, your writing will start to seem stale and formulaic.
So don’t be too heavy-handed in your use of conjunctive adverbs.
Beginnings and Endings
Often it’s possible to connect sentences by repeating a phrase or idea. Notice how the following examples create connections with either the beginning or end of the first sentence:
Some days my arthritis is very painful. Some days I can hardly get out of bed.
Uncle Bramwell let me fly his favourite plane, a fully restored WW II Spitfire. Such an aircraft would fetch millions of pounds at an auction.
When used badly, repetition becomes redundancy. When used effectively, it becomes poetry. If you want proof, read chapter 1 of the Gospel of John.
Another biblical passage that provides a great stylistic example is 1 Cor. 13. The main stylistic technique in this chapter is anaphora, or the repetition of the opening words of successive clauses. Here are just a few verses:
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Cor. 13: 11-12).
What makes this passage particularly poignant is that while the anaphora creates a forward movement, a sense of continuity, there is also a counter movement, a pull in the opposition direction. The contrast between “now” and “then” suggests that things are not the same: much has changed as the speaker has matured.
In academic writing, anaphora is usually more muted, but it can still be an effective technique. Here, for instance, is C. S. Lewis writing about natural law (what he calls the Tao) in The Abolition of Man:
We may legitimately hope that among the impulses which arise in minds thus emptied of all ‘rational’ or ‘spiritual’ motives, some will be benevolent. I am very doubtful myself whether the benevolent impulses, stripped of that preference and encouragement which the Tao teaches us to give them and left to their merely natural strength and frequency as psychological events, will have much influence. I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently. I am inclined to think that the Conditioners will hate the conditioned.
The third time around Lewis changes the phrase and turns from doubt to greater certainty.
There are other strategies for connecting sentences. You can use parallel structure. You can ask questions about what you’ve just said. There’s no need then to get stuck in a rut—move around the pieces until you’re happy with the result.
To practice what you’ve learned, print out our Combining Sentences Exercise or do the exercise on hypotaxis and parataxis.