If your sentences start out the same way too often in a row, you may need to vary your sentence patterns.
NOTE: Starting out the same way does not necessarily mean the same word, but rather the same part of speech.
Before I start discussing when you need to vary your pattern versus when it is ok, let’s take a look at the various ways to start a sentence.
Sentence pattern 1: Begin with the subject
The subject is what the sentence is about (the doer of the action or what is being described).
My daughter loves to spin in circles. (My daughter is doing the action; she is the subject.)
This story is driving me nuts. (This story is what is driving me nuts.)
Sentence pattern 2: Begin with a prepositional phrase
A preposition shows direction, location, time, or introduces the noun.
Over on the other side of the bridge, I saw a lone man walking towards me.
Along the way, we learn a lot of great life lessons.
Sentence pattern 3: Begin with a participle or participial phrase (“ing” or “ed”)
Feeling a little tired, I put my tablet aside and started to doze off when my cat jumped on me reminding me to get to work.
Hoping to escape the teacher’s attention, Matt crawled into the classroom.
Past Participial Phrase (use an “ed” word):
Wracked with sorrow, I left without saying a word.
Depressed by the amount of homework, the student collapsed into tears.
Sentence pattern 4: Begin with a dependent clause (uses subordinating conjunctions)
Because it rained, we had to cancel the party.
While I was taking the test, my pen ran out of ink.
Sentence pattern 5: Begin with an appositive
An appositive is a noun phrase used to describe another noun.
A well-respected Mayor, Bill knew he could run for president.
A struggling magician, Tom wandered from street to street.
Sentence pattern 6: Begin with an infinitive phrase
An infinitive is the word “to” plus a verb.
To be successful, I had to start spending some money and investing in this.
To reduce my social media time, I blocked Facebook messages from showing up on my phone.
Sentence pattern 7:Begin with a single word modifier
A single-word modifier is one word that modifies the meaning of a word, clause, or phrase.
Usually, someone takes attendance in my class.
Happily, she skipped to her room.
When to Vary Your Pattern
When I taught English, my students wanted some hard-and-fast rule, but we all know there isn’t one. As a guideline, I told them if they had more than three sentences in a row that started with the same pattern, they should look closer to see if they need to make an adjustment.
Notice this doesn’t mean you cannot have more than three in a row that start the same way. It isn’t about numbers; it is about the effect it has on your writing and the flow of the sentences. I just use that guideline as a signal to look closely at the passage.
If the passage sounds monotonous, choppy, “off” in some way, and/or doesn’t seem to flow, then varying the sentence pattern could help.
The example at the start was obvious that a rewrite was in order. Let’s look at some less exaggerated examples.
Examples needing a rewrite
Commentary: The original contained seven sentences in a row beginning with a subject. The rewrite condensed the seven sentences into four sentences: beginning with a participial phrase, subject, subject, and prepositional phrase.
I chose to rewrite this passage not because there were seven in a row that started the same way (remember, it isn’t about numbers). I chose to rewrite it because it didn’t flow well: each sentence seemed like a separate thought rather than a connected idea. The rewrite helps the ideas flow and connect together.
Commentary: The original contained five sentences in a row (yes broken into two paragraphs, but it doesn’t matter if the sentences are in the same paragraph or different paragraphs) beginning with a subject and then one with a dependent clause. In the rewritten version, I eliminated four “be” verbs and varied the sentence beginnings: single-word modifier, prepositional phrase, subject, single-word modifier, and dependent clause.
No rewrite needed
Now let’s look at an example that has several sentences in a row starting the same way, but the flow is fine. This example comes from a New York Times article written by Julia Moskin and Kim Severson.
While we have five sentences in a row starting off with the subject (I added one myself), this doesn’t hurt the flow. The ideas all connect and flow well together, and it doesn’t read monotonously or choppy.
Analyzing it all
This may be hard to see, but read the three examples out loud.
The first one sounds choppy; the second example reads much better but the ideas start to sound a bit disjointed; and then the last examples flows just fine.
Bottom line: If you need a guideline, when you have more than three that start off with the same pattern, read the passage out loud and see how it sounds. If it sounds fine, then move on. If it doesn’t, try varying your sentence patterns to increase the flow.
Sometimes it is a stylistic choice to start several sentences in a row in the same way, often with the exact same word. This is called an anaphora. Authors use it to emphasize something, show chaos, create rhythm, etc.
Example from The Catcher in the Rye: “It rained on his lousy tombstone. It rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place.” (used to emphasize how miserable it was)
Example from A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” (used to show how divisive the time period was)
Example from John F. Kennedy’s speech: “What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness.” (used to focus in on the events and get people to think, What do we need?)
If you purposefully start of several sentences in a row the same, then often the effect is beautiful. If you are editing your piece and notice that you started several sentences in a row with the exact same word or phrase (not on purpose), then stop and read that passage out loud to see if it sounds choppy or disjointed. Then decide if you need to rewrite one or more of the sentences to begin a different way.
Katie Chambers, owner of Beacon Point, is a nonfiction and fiction substantive (developmental) editor and copy editor for independent authors; content writer and editor for business professionals; and online teacher and tutor.
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