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Spice Up Boring Sentences with Clauses and Verbals

Using clauses and verbals helps you vary your sentence structure and that makes your writing interesting. You should read your writing aloud from time to time to check how it sounds. The old saying, variety is the spice of life, applies to writing. Use this checklist to see whether your writing could use a little hot pepper:

  • Do all your sentences follow the same basic pattern, subject-verb or subject-verb-complement?

  • Have you strung a lot of short sentences together with and or a similar joining word?

  • Are all your sentences more or less the same length?

If you answered yes to one or more of the preceding questions, a trip to the spice rack is in order.

Enjoying the clause that refreshes

Have you ever seen those diet ads on late-night television? The before picture shows someone who has apparently eaten a rainforest, and the after picture displays a toothpick-thin body. Here are some before-and-after sentences. No diets — just a change from boring to interesting:

Boring before version: Max sat on a tuffet. Max did not know that he was sitting on a tuffet. Max had never seen a tuffet before. He was quite comfortable. Then Ms. Muffet came in and caused trouble.
Exciting after version: Max, who was sitting on a tuffet, did not know what a tuffet was because he had never seen one before. Until Ms. Muffet came in and caused trouble, Max was quite comfortable.

The after paragraph is two words shorter (33 instead of 35 words), but more important than length is the number of sentences. The before paragraph has five, and the after paragraph has two. Tucking more than one idea into a sentence saves words and makes your writing less choppy.

Speaking of verbals

Verbals pull a lot of information into a little package. After all, they represent a blend of two parts of speech, so they provide two different perspectives in just one word. Look at this sentence:

Betsy gave bribing the umpire serious consideration when her team lost its 450th game in a row.

Without the gerund, you use more words to say the same thing:

Betsy’s team lost its 450th game in a row. Betsy thought about whether she should bribe the umpire. Betsy thought seriously about that possibility.

Okay, the gerund saved you seven words. Big deal! Well, it is a big deal over the course of a paragraph or a whole paper. But more important than word count is sentence structure. Verbals are just one more color in your crayon box when you’re creating a picture. Who wants the same old eight colors? Isn’t it fun to try something different? Gerunds, infinitives, and participles help you vary the pattern of your sentences. Here’s a before-and-after example:

Boring before version: Lulu smacked Larry. Larry had stolen the sacred toe hoop from Lulu’s parrot. The sacred toe hoop was discovered 100 years ago. Lulu’s parrot likes to sharpen his beak on it.
Exciting after version: Smacking Larry is Lulu’s way of telling Larry that he should not have stolen the sacred toe hoop from her parrot. Discovered 100 years ago, the toe hoop serves to sharpen the parrot’s beak.
Labels for those who care: Smacking Lulu = gerund, discovered 100 years ago = participle, to sharpen the parrot’s beak = infinitive.
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