By AA Patawaran
I’ll make it simple. Last week’s essay was stuffy and florid, maybe even pompous. I meant to do it that way. I wanted to write like Nabokov. I tried my very best to make it simple anyway. My references would take no more effort than typing up a few characters on your search browser. Or you just have to think back on those days school required you to study Roman mythology.
In this essay I will write in short, simple sentences. Simple is not easy. Not for me. I have always been in love with Proust. I like thoughts within thoughts, sentences within sentences. I like layers of action, thinking, and meaning in a single sentence. It doesn’t matter whether it is long or short.
I love André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. I love both the book and the movie. It’s not only its coming-of-age theme. It’s not only because it’s a sexy book about self-discovery and sexual awakening. It’s because it is layered with culture. There is language— Latin, Greek, French, Italian, even Arabic. There is antiquity, like sculpture that dates back to Hellenistic times. There are books, such as The Cosmic Fragments by Heraclitus, Dante Aligheri’s Inferno, Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. And there are authors like Shakespeare, Emily Brontë, Thomas Hardy, Katherine Mansfield. I’m afraid I’m straying off the path of simple sentences. I’m not. I haven’t even mentioned Ovid. I haven’t even mentioned Virgil. I haven’t even mentioned The Leopard by Guiseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa.
The simple sentence is the crown of writing. Just one thought at a time. That doesn’t mean only one subject, though. That doesn’t mean only one predicate, either. Yes, there is a type of simple sentence that has one subject and one verb. There is the other type, however, that has one subject and two or more verbs or has two or more nouns and one predicate.
A simple sentence doesn’t need to be short. In a simple sentence, you can have as many nouns as you want. In a simple sentence, you can have as many verbs as you want. Let’s look at the following simple sentences.
- The nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections in a simple sentence serve a singular purpose.
- A simple sentence can intrigue, inform, inspire, influence, inflame, educate, excite, entertain, embolden, and empower the reader.
Now let’s put these two sentences together.
The nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections in a simple sentence can intrigue, inform, inspire, influence, inflame, educate, excite, entertain, embolden, and empower the reader.
It’s quite a mouthful. It is the combination of multiple thoughts. And yet, it’s still a simple sentence.
You can write an epic just using simple sentences. But I think it will be too much of a challenge, even for Ernest Hemingway. He would go straight to the point. He was known for his terse, minimalist style of writing. He did away with flowery adjectives. But even he could use a few subordinate clauses here and there just to spice things up. He would need some dependent clauses or some phrases—adverbial phrases, gerund, infinitive, and appositive phrases, prepositional phrases, participle phrases, and absolute phrases—now and then to make things more interesting.
As for me, I love finding my way through the maze of language to the end of each sentence. Long sentences add poetic rhythm to writing. They are like little journeys. But it really isn’t about length. It’s really about the number of dependent and independent clauses in a sentence. An independent clause can stand on its own. It really is a simple sentence. A dependent clause needs the rest of the sentence or at least one independent clause to be a complete thought.
Sentences fall in any of four basic categories or structures.
There is the simple sentence. It has one independent clause. These two preceding sentences are an example.
There is the simple sentence, and then there’s the compound sentence. The compound sentence has two or more independent clauses, but it has no dependent clause. The two preceding sentences and this sentence are an example, and they are tied together by a coordinating conjunction.
All you have to do is write one true sentence. —Ernest Hemingway
After the simple sentence and the compound sentence, let’s go to the third category, the complex sentence. The complex sentence, as opposed to the two previous categories, contains one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses. These two preceding sentences, just like this particular sentence, are an example.
Because we have discussed the compound sentence and the complex sentence, it should be easier to understand that we can combine the two, but I did not say easy, just easier. This preceding sentence is an example of the compound-complex sentence. It has two or more independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses.
But long sentences—compound, complex, or compound-complex—only work in combination with simple sentences. In fact, no long sentence can exist without at least one independent clause in it. There are such things as sentence fragments. They can be beautiful. But they are fragments of thought, not a complete sentence. They are a matter of style.
And long sentences only work when it does not drown or dilute the core message. That’s one way to know whether or not your sentence works, long or short. You must identify the core. The core is a simple sentence. It’s a subject and a predicate that can stand on their own. It’s a subject and a predicate that together make a complete thought.
I used to teach grammar at a school of accountants-to-be. Basically, they had been brainwashed to think they did not have it in them to write good sentences. They had been brainwashed to think that their knack for 123s had canceled out their potential for ABCs. My advice to these students was to K.I.S.S. — Keep it simple. Make “Subject-Verb-Direct Object” your bestfriend. You can throw in an indirect object, if needed. I was of the notion that forcing my students to write short, simple sentences would dramatically improve their writing.
I was right.
It does pay to heed the lessons of simple writing. It helps you build your sentences on the strength of your nouns and verbs. It makes your nouns and verbs work harder for you. It keeps you from straying off the mark. It keeps you on point.