Writing Insight

Yesterday I sat in on a colleague’s class (stood in the doorway, more like) and listened to him expound on writing. He was going on and on about sentence structure, and then he wound up praising a sentence from one student that ran something like this:

“Breaking down the gates of the city, the Assyrians showed no mercy and began killing the inhabitants as a warning to discourage other rebellions.”

It made me think about verb choice and the forcefulness of language, and I suggested an alternative, based on placing the verbs in some semblance of order-of-force.

Warning other rebels with their merciless act, the Assyrians broke down the city gates and slaughtered the inhabitants.”

All three verbs — warn, break, and slaughter — are active voice and fairly active verbs. However, the warning participle is relatively gentle. Break is a bit more harsh, and slaughter is the harshest of all. By entraining the three verbs from least-violent to most-violent, the writer leads the reader along through the action’s forcefulness. The main subject of the thought — breaking the city gates and slaughtering the inhabitants — remains the main focus of the sentence. The warning, such as it is, is confined to the participial phrase, where it belongs as the weakest element of an otherwise strong sentence. I’m not sure how to phrase this as a guideline for good writing yet, but it’s something like…

arrange elements of a sentence so that they proceed in logical order from least-strong to most-strong, or from strongest to weakest.

That’s not quite right yet, so if you think how to phrase this eloquently, please let me know.

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One comment

  1. Grammatical challenges

    To create a dramatic build and climax in a single sentence, arrange words and phrases in ascending order of severity. For example, the following words:
    brake down
    could be used thusly:
    Warning other rebels with their merciless act, the Assyrians broke down the city gates and slaughtered the inhabitants.

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