Varying Sentence Structure

When writing an essay, it”s easy to fall into a rut by using the same sentence structure over and over and over. But readers prefer a variety of sentences.

Variety for its own sake is hardly preferable to assembly-line writing—writing in which every sentence follows the same pattern. But variety that clarifies meaning or gives emphasis to selected ideas is something else. For one thing, it adds life to your prose.

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Varied sentences can bring a dull essay to life.

English sentences are structured in three ways: simple, compound, and complex

Simple: Terry fell asleep in math class.

The sentence is simple because it contains one grammatical subject (Terry) and one verb (fell ). It also states a single main idea.

Compound : The competition is stiff, but it won”t keep Mark from winning.

The sentence is compound because it is made up of two simple sentences joined by the coordinating conjunction but. Other coordinating conjunctions used in compound sentences are and, yet, or, for, nor, and so, as in:

The competition is stiff, and Mark is worried about winning.

Mark is worried about winning, for he has a bad cold.

Notice that the structure of each of these compound sentences gives roughly equal emphasis to its two main ideas.

Complex: Although he has a bad cold, Mark will win.

The sentence is complex because it is made up of two parts—a simple sentence (Mark will win) and a clause (Although he has a bad cold) that is not a complete sentence in itself but depends on the simple sentence for its meaning. Because the clause begins with a subordinating conjunction (Although), it is called a subordinate clause. Subordinate clauses contain ideas related to the complete sentence (called the independent, or main, clause), but they are usually less important. Other common subordinating conjunctions include because, after, before, though, unless, until, whenever, and while.

Not every simple, compound, and complex sentence is structured in the way just described. In fact, variations abound because English is a remarkably flexible language that can be shaped in countless ways, as you”ll see next.

Most simple sentences start with the grammatical subject followed by the verb, as in:

Cats (subject) fall (verb) asleep in about three seconds.
They (subject) sleep (verb) best after eating and cleaning themselves.
I (subject) wish (verb) to be a cat in my next life.

A string of sentences with this subject–verb pattern resembles the prose in a grade-school primer—a style that just won”t do on an SAT essay. To be sure that you write in a more mature and engaging way, analyze one of your recent essays. If several sentences begin with grammatical subjects, try shifting the subject elsewhere. Try leading off with a prepositional phrase, or with an adverb, adjective, or some other grammatical unit.

The following pairs of sentences show how a subject can be shifted from its customary position:

Before the shift:

Ms. Bennett is one of the most popular teachers in the school.

After the shift:

In this school, Ms. Bennett is one of the most popular teachers.

After a prepositional phrase was added, the subject (Ms. Bennett) has been moved further along in the sentence.


She taught the novel The Grapes of Wrath to our eleventh-grade English class with enthusiasm.


Enthusiastically, she taught the novel The Grapes of Wrath to our eleventh-grade English class.

Obviously, the revised sentence begins with an adverb.


Students were less excited about the book than she was.


Yet, students were less excited about the book than she was.

Well, here the subject (students) is stated after an opening connective.


I loved the book, although it turned out to be an intolerable drag for most of my classmates.


Although the book turned out to be an intolerable drag for most of my classmates, I loved it.

After introducing the sentence with a dependent clause, the writer names the subject, I, and then adds the rest of the sentence.


Ms. Bennett pushed the class to find symbolic meaning in various characters to make the book more meaningful.


To make the book more meaningful, Ms. Bennett pushed the class to find symbolic meaning in various characters.

To revise this sentence the writer begins with a verbal, in this case “to make,” the infinitive form of the verb. (Verbals look and feel much like verbs but serve a different function. Verbals, though, come from verbs, hence their name and their resemblance.)


I read the book in two days, hoping that it would never end.


Hoping that it would never end, I read the book in two days.

Aiming to diversify sentence openings, the writer starts this sentence with another kind of verbal, known as a participle. The -ing ending often indicates that a word is a participle.


I was awed by the tenacity of the Joad family and absorbed by every soul-stirring syllable of the story.


Awed by the tenacity of the Joad family, I was absorbed by every soul-stirring syllable of the story.

Determined to try something different, the writer begins the sentence with an adjective that happens to sound like a verb because of its -ed ending.

Still another variation to try now and then is the sentence constructed from matched ideas set in juxtaposition. President Kennedy used such a sentence to memorable effect in his inaugural speech:

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

The power of such sentences lies in the balance of parallel clauses. Each clause could stand alone, but together they express the idea more vigorously. Another famous example, from Shakespeare”s Julius Caesar:

“Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.”

Emphasis can also come from a reversal of customary word order. Out of context a sentence in which the predicate precedes the subject may seem awkward. But in the right spot an inverted sentence can leave an indelible mark. “Dull the book is not” packs more wallop than “The book is not dull” or “The book is exciting.” In the right context, “Perilous was the climb to the top of the cliff” sounds more ominous than “The climb to the top of the cliff was perilous.” Inverted sentences should be used sparingly, however. More than once in an essay diminishes the vigor of each occurrence and may sound silly.

No rule of thumb says that a certain percentage of sentences in an essay ought to be different from the usual subject–verb structure. It really depends on the purpose and style of the essay. But if you find yourself repeating the same sentence pattern, restructure some of your sentences. SAT readers are bound to reward you for the effort.