Grammar my teacher never taught me: discover new ways of starting sentences and improve your writing
I love pronouns. So much in fact that starting sentences with pronouns was a hobby. It’s a hard habit to break, but I managed to overcome that predilection. Ever since I varied the start of my sentences, I’ve been writing better texts that resonate more with my readers. This blog will tell you about other ways of starting sentences.
The reason pronouns are so amazing, and why I fell in love with them, is because they are so easy to use. They directly aim at a character without having to use their name constantly. In fact, the tool is so effective that it’s normal to overuse them.
But, as with all things that seem too good to be true, overusing them becomes a poison. Starting every other sentence off with a pronoun determines much of the sentence structure, and that needs to vary just as much as your scenes or your characters’ body language needs to be varied. Take for example:
“I hate pronouns,” she texted her partner. Her gaze turned outward, to the abandoned street below. He didn’t reply; he was on a business trip, stuck working on some software issues. They had been together for almost a year, and despite the distance they made it work. They were happy.
As you can see, the above example has some variation in how the sentences are built, but not that much. Pronouns tend to fulfill the role of subject when they begin the sentence, which then is followed by a verb. The first word you use dictates a lot about what can follow after. For example, you can’t write “To school have I to go.”
For more information about word order, you can check out this incredibly helpful page. Using pronouns as the first word forces you to follow up with certain groups of words and that is what limits you when overusing pronouns.
Determined to improve
The first thing I tried to replace my beloved pronouns with were articles and demonstratives. Those are part of a larger word group called determiners. This group contains articles (a/an, the), demonstratives (that/this/those/they/these), and pronouns. For example, instead of writing “He danced in the rain.” I would write, “The man danced in the rain.” Or, “That man danced in the rain.”
At first glance, both alternatives look good. Right? Because it’s not a pronoun as the first word. But though the word itself is not a pronoun, it still forces my sentences to largely follow a predetermined path. Determiners all have roughly the same role within grammar, so instead of fixing the underlying problem of similar sentence structure, the only thing I achieved was to use less pronouns.
The notion that starting sentences with a conjunction is wrong arises from a misunderstanding. Much like the “Never use an adverb!” rule, it’s based on the assumption that the writer is a novice who overuses conjuctions because—let’s be honest—they’re so easy to use.
Conjunctions are often exemplified with “if ands or buts”, but there are many more that will breathe voice into your writing. Especially in dialogue this helps the lines sound as replies instead of hollow phrases said in turn. They also emphasize things in a certain way, for example: “But I have to go to school.” That line alone makes you think about what makes a child or teen reply in such a way. Is someone pressuring them to take a day off? Or is someone suggesting to them they stay up past midnight? Without the ‘but’, the sentence doesn’t carry that same tone of voice.
Here are some examples to give you inspiration. Try and see if you can come up with a sentence starting with these words;
(But wait, there’s more! Even these little buggers have subcategories which you can find properly explained here.
Feel the verbs
Each verb has an infinitive form; otherwise known as to+verb. To be, to pass, to love, to choose, to impeach. From that ultimate form, all other forms are created; simply remove the ‘to’. What’s left is called the stem of the verb. That’s the most basic form and often is the same as the first person singular form of the verb: I have, I impeach, I love. But, as English loves exemptions and irregularities, not always. It would be wrong to say I be.
And with that stem we have the first verb form that exists outside of tenses: the imperative. Even though it looks like a present tense, it’s perfectly legit to use impertives in the narration or descriptive parts of a text written in past tense. These are often used for commands and instructions, for example on signs. “Stop” is probably the most famous amongst them as it’s a known traffic sign, and another famous one is, “Help!”
Not every imperative is an exclamation, though. “Come to the dark side” is another one. Or how about, “Bring that famous dip of yours!” The easiest, 99.9% certain way to spot an imperative is that you can put this phrase before the sentence: “It’s imperative that you~”, followed by the sentence. “It’s imperative that you come over to the dark side.”, and “It’s imperative that you stop.” Or, why not go with a sassy, “It’s imperative that you don’t stop.”
This trick doesn’t always work when you use the word don’t, for example in “It’s imperative that you don’t be late.” It feels more natural to use ‘won’t’ as it’s a warning for the future.
Gerunds are verbs turned nouns or adjectives. You create them by taking the stem of a verb and adding ‘ing’ to it. So then you get “being”, and “having”, and “loving” and “impeaching”. (And yes, gerunds are a form of participle which are also formed by verb+ing!)
If you learned English as a first language, odds are that your English teacher hated gerunds, especially starting sentences with them. The reason they did is because they were taught to hate gerunds, much like how conjunctions fell from grace. It’s a product of the way they themselves were taught.
The thing that gets people upset about starting sentences with gerunds is that they should reflect an action performed by the subject of the sentence. So you can’t say “Sleeping in my orchard, a serpent bit me.” That sentence has the gerund pointing at the serpent, not the sleeping me. This is called a dangling modifier; the phrase that modifies the subject aims at the indirect object and not the subject. The way Shakespeare wrote that line, he implies that a sleeping snake who owns the orchard bit the ‘me’.
But, and this is the beauty of these verb forms, gerunds allow for a lot of different variations of sentence structures. For example, that sentence written by Shakespeare has the gerund start off an introductory clause. But there’s also, “Loving a dog is not hard”, in which the gerund becomes part of the subject. But why stop there? You can even use the gerund in passive sentences! “Being buried alive is a nightmare.”
Use of gerunds in books
And yet, gerunds are not that commonly used in books. Some even manage to avoid them completely. If you ask me, that’s because participles (umbrella term for all verb+ing forms) get a bad reputation. They can easily be overused and sometimes you can’t get around using a participle; for example when you have to use a past perfect (was verb+ing) to denote a further past occurrence when you write in past tense.
As a writer you will have to decide for yourself if you think they fit in with your voice as a writer, or if you don’t like them. At any rate, don’t let someone who hasn’t read your writing decide for you what kinds of words you should and shouldn’t use.
When you write nouns that are not preceded by articles (a/an, the), they come across with more directness. For example, “Blood ran down the edge of her sword.” Adding an article before that would lessen its impact.
At the same time, nouns are bountiful. They come in all shapes and sizes, which means that as far as nouns go, you can start most sentences with them. Keep in mind that repetition of structure is boring as well. Adding in a noun form that consists of multiple words helps combat this: “Drops of blood ran down her sword.” Or, “Blood from the enemies she had slain ran down her sword.”
Adverbs and adjectives
The widespread hatred towards adverbs focuses solely on the ones ending in -ly. Most adverbs don’t even get recognized. Whenever you use an indication of time (yesterday, tomorrow, never, someday, etc.) you’re using an adverb. You probably started a sentence with those at one point. Here’s a list that shows you just what is considered an adverb.
As for adjectives, like nouns they are wonderfully versatile. Instead of saying “Walls towered over them”, you can specify, “Granite walls towered over them.” I like to think of nouns as being specific, while adjectives and adjectives can give a different shade and/or context to a noun. Both adjectives and adverbs add detail to description—and give your sentences new paths to flourish.
Starting sentences with prepositions turn into introductory clauses, but not all. One rule for proper comma use states that every introductory clause is closed off by a comma. Which is correct. But the notion that every sentence that starts with a preposition should have a comma (to close off that introductory clause) is ridiculously wrong. For example;
“In the middle of the road was a puddle of water.”
Where would you put the comma in that sentence? Does it add clarity or improve on the context? After all, that is the whole reason we use interpunction in English. Long sentences definitely benefit from commas for clarity but in shorter sentences, the current practice in Editing Land is to leave them out—if they don’t add anything.
How does that look?
After all this talk of grammar and me geeking out, let’s see how that example looks when I apply it to that boring paragraph I wrote before.
“I hate pronouns,” she texted her partner. Her gaze turned outward, to the abandoned street outside. He didn’t reply; he was on a business trip, stuck working on some software issues. They had been together for almost a year, and despite the distance they made it work. They were happy.
Let’s get some flair in there and remove those pronouns!
“Pronouns are so overused.” The message got two blue marks in the corner. Outside her window, the street lay abandoned.
As you rewrite the sentences, some will have to change their wording but what matters here is that you get the meaning across. The second and third sentence both have the known subject-verb-object order that is a hallmark of English, but as their position within the sentence is switched from first to last, it feels like a very different struture.
No reply came. Fixing some software issues on his business trip, no doubt. Almost a year now they’d been together, and despite the distance they made it work. Happy smiles in all their pictures.
As you can see the whole text changed. Every sentence has a unique flow, especially compared to the first version. Starting sentences with varied openings is how my writing improved a lot with not that much effort.
Introductory (Santa) Clauses
Before this blog winds down I want to give a special shout-out to introductory clauses. These can start with any word you want, but most commonly use gerunds or prepositions. An introductory clause is unable to stand on its own, as it relies on the verb and subject of the independent clause. An example from the Prose Edda:
“One of the gods is called Bragi. Though renowned for his wisdom, he is mostly known for his eloquence.”
The dependent clause “Though renowned for his wisdom” doesn’t form a complete sentence. It is dependent on the clause that follows. The reason we call it an introductory clause is because it starts the sentence, as a way of introducing the reader to the setting that follows.
Introductory clauses allow you to tell something more about the independent clause that may very well start with a pronoun; that way you get to cheat the system a little. They’re a gift from the grammar gods to make our lives easier.
So as you can see there are plenty of wordfish in the sea! Whenever I notice an overload of pronouns at the start of my text, I grab this list of other available options as a reminder of what else is out there. If you have any other tips on preventing those buggers from starting sentences, do let us know!
If you’re interested in more author tidbits, check out Twitter at Madeline_Pine or check out Saskia’s for editing tips. Also, don’t forget our monthly newsletter. I’m available for editing services at vanirediting.com. We shall see you next Tuesday with more writing tips. Until then, happy editing!