Elegance

How do the parts of your sentence balance and complement each other?



Introduction to Elegance: Balance and Symmetry

Elegant writing does more than convey meaning: it displays the writer's skill by imparting distinct sounds and rhythms to the reader.

Writing with elegance means exercising control over each aspect of our prose. We can control and balance our sentences to lend greater impact to specific words or phrases.

A. The year was 1960 and the time was midnight, and the rain ran down by the hotels and into the gutters.

B. The year was 1960 and the rain ran down by the hotels and into the gutters. The time was midnight.

The second example divides the original sentence into two, allowing the two parallel phrases to serve as a frame: "The year was 1960...The time was midnight." These sentences impart exactly the same information but manage to sound different by virtue of the way their elements are arranged.

Variety is an important part of elegance. You can exercise deliberation and control by varying the sound, pace, and length of your sentences.

You have the ability to decide when a sentence should be slow or fast, short or long. Elegant writing balances these elements to shape sentences that do more than simply convey meaning clearly — they are pleasing to read.

Pace

You can say some things faster than others. Tongue twisters, for instance, are difficult and take longer to say that non-alliterative speech. We can achieve a similar effect by using syllables to control the speed at which readers will read our writing.

SLOWING DOWN

When you use several consecutive stressed words in a sentence, you force readers to slow down as they read. With this technique, you can subtly draw your readers' attention to particular words or phrases.

EXAMPLE 1:

"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" (Kennedy).

Explanation:
The speaker uses several sequences of stressed words, effectively slowing down the sentence.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
"His silver skin is laced with his golden blood" (misquoted from Shakespeare).

Revision:
"His silver skin laced with his golden blood" (Shakespeare).

Explanation:
The first version inserts an unstressed syllable ("is") between two stressed syllables ("skin … laced"). This alternation of stressed and unstressed allows us to read the sentence at a measured speed. The revision eliminates the unstressed syllable, leaving the two stressed syllables adjacent. This placement demands that we pause after reading "skin," slowing down the speed at which we can read the sentence.

SPEEDING UP

When several consecutive words in a sentence are unstressed, your readers can move through the sentence more quickly. Speeding up a sentence, like slowing one down, can be a useful way to guide your readers' responses.

EXAMPLE 1:

He'll have some cake.

Explanation:
We can read this sentence quickly because the words are unstressed.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
"… Swift Camilla scours the plain, flies over the unbending corn, and skims along the main" (misquoted from Pope).

Revision:
"…Swift Camilla scours the plain, flies o'er the unbending corn, and skims along the main" (Pope).

Explanation:
By changing the pronunciation of the two syllable "over" (the second syllable of which is stressed) to the one syllable "o'er," Pope eliminates the stressed second syllable of "over" and creates a string of unstressed syllables ("o'er the un…") that we can read through quickly.

Balance and Coordination

Some sentences can become top-heavy, with all the weighty words in one spot while the rest of the sentence rambles on weakly, without order or organization. This can happen with paragraphs as well as at the level of individual sentences.

BALANCING YOUR SENTENCES

Balanced sentences guide readers carefully from one clause to the next without rushing them. The words and phrases of balanced sentences complement each other in arrangement and sound, making a single point with appreciable style.

You can also use grammar to coordinate the parts of your sentences.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
When a writer challenges the stylistic norms of previous generations, that same writer prescribes the stylistic norms of successive generations.

Revision:
Writers who challenge the stylistic norms of previous generations prescribe the stylistic norms of successive generations.

Explanation:
The verbs and phrases of the two parts of these sentences mirror each other: "challenge" and "prescribe," "previous" and "successive." The words "stylistic norms" and "generations" stabilize the sentences with their repetition. The revision is more elegant: its predicate (everything following "prescribe") reflects its subject ("Writers who … previous generations"), making for a smoother, less interrupted transition between the two main parts.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
I like blackberries, cherries, peaches, pears, and apricots more than apples.

Revision:
I like apples less than blackberries, cherries, peaches, pears, and apricots.

Explanation:
We can emphasize the main point clearly if we place the shorter comparative before the longer one.

COORDINATING CLAUSES

A coordinated sentence doesn't leap from one clause to the next. Instead, it interweaves one clause with another clause.

We can coordinate clauses with correlative conjunctions such as "both … and," "either … or," and "not only … but also."

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
Eating lots of chocolate helps when drafting an essay and when revising it.

Revision:
Eating lots of chocolate helps not only when drafting an essay, but also when revising it.

Explanation:
The grammatical construction "not only … but also" balances the two compared clauses.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The ideas that teachers teach and students study what they've been taught are integral to our educational system.

Revision:
Integral to our educational system are the ideas that teachers teach and that students study.

Explanation:
Both versions of this sentence use a coordinator to combine two parallel elements; the second version does this more effectively than the first. The first version presents two elements ("teachers teach" and "students study") in the same clause (introduced by "that"). The second presents these same two elements in separate clauses (each introduced by "that").

Opening with Adjectives

Do you want to emphasize a particular quality of your topic? You can draw attention to a description by opening several consecutive clauses with adjectives. If you do this for several consecutive clauses, you will create a pleasant pattern of emphatically placed adjectives.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
"Garish in her dress, eccentric in her habits, chaste in her conduct, coarse in her speech, she succeeded in her lifetime in drawing upon herself the ridicule of the great and the applause of the learned" (Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader).

Explanation:
Here, Woolf begins several consecutive clauses with adjectives to give us a vivid picture of her topic's characteristics.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The students left campus, happy that summer was beginning, sad that the vacation was so short.

Explanation:
This sentence begins two clauses with adjectives to describe how the students feel.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Leaves are green in summer, orange in fall, brown in winter.

Explanation:
This sentence opens three consecutive clauses with adjectives, drawing readers' attention to the color of the leaves.

Rhetorical Flourishes

As you're polishing your prose, you can craft rhetorical flourishes, linguistic gestures that add style and grace while letting your readers know that you control the nuances of your writing.

CREATING A CHIASMUS

Chiasmus is a rhetorical structure in which the words of one clause are repeated inversely in the next clause. We can represent chiasmus as "A-B-B-A."

EXAMPLE 1:

"Suit the action to the word, the word to the action" (Shakespeare).

Explanation:
If we call "action" A and "word" B, then we can see that this sentence is a chiasmus. Notice its A-B-B-A format: "… action … word … word … action."

EXAMPLE 2:

I say what I mean and I mean what I say (misquoted from Lewis Carroll).

EXAMPLE 3:

"The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool" (Shakespeare).

EXAMPLE 4:

"How much better it is to weep at joy than to joy at weeping!" (Shakespeare).

Climactic Emphasis

Sometimes, the sounds that end a sentence can stick in readers' minds, resounding like echoes. Other times, sentences seem to trail off indecisively and insignificantly. The difference lies in the words with which the writer concludes the sentence.

ENDING WITH A NOMINALIZATION

Nominalizations are nouns that have a verb, adjective, or adverb embedded in them. While nominalizations can conceal action with formal words, we can sometimes use them to good effect. Nominalizations are weighty words: concluding a sentence with a nominalization can fortify your point.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
That is a discovery I did not know of.

Revision:
I did not know of that discovery.

Explanation:
"Discovery" is a nominalization because it is a noun form of the verb "discover." Combining "discovery" with the empty verb "is" delays the action and the impact of the sentence. By moving "discovery" to the end of the sentence, we replace the weak prepositional ending ("of").

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
They never spoke again because they disagreed.

Revision:They never spoke again because of the disagreement.

Explanation:
"Disagreement," a nominalization, concludes the sentence with more emphasis than its verb form.

ENDING WITH A PREPOSITION

Prepositions connect parts of sentences and tell the reader how these parts relate in time and space. Although we rely on them, we should recognize that prepositions are not forceful words. You can convey information to readers more conclusively when you resist the convenience of ending sentences with prepositions.

That said, there are occasions when we cannot rephrase a sentence ending with a preposition without creating a formal monstrosity. In such cases, we may choose to end with a preposition. To cite Thoreau, "Simplify, simplify, simplify."

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
I know whom you wrote the book for.

Revision:
I know for whom you wrote the book.

Explanation:
The sentence's last word, "for," is a preposition. We can move the preposition to the middle of the sentence.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The tourists followed the guide they traveled with.

Revision:
The tourists followed their traveling guide.

Explanation:
We can revise the end preposition by rearranging the sentence to end with a clearer word: "guide."

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
That is the sort of thing which I will not put up with.

Revision 1:
"That is the sort of thing up with which I will not put" (attributed to Winston Churchill).

Revision 2:
I will not put up with that sort of thing.

Explanation:
The version ending on a preposition is more intelligible than the revision (in which Churchill mocked the limits of the don't-end-with-a-preposition rule). As with many sentences, however, a little flexibility in rearranging your words will help you can arrive at a sentence that neither ends on a preposition or sounds convoluted.

Review

  • Use stressed words to slow down the pace of your sentences, and unstressed words to speed up
  • Create balance by controlling the structure of your sentences
  • Use correlative conjunctions to seamlessly transition between clauses
  • Vary the length of your sentences to give natural rhythm to your prose
  • Use chiasmus to emphasize your meaning and add style and grace to your writing
  • End a sentence with a nominalization to fortify your point
  • Rearrange sentences to avoid ending with a preposition