Writing Exercises 1 - 5


The engine of your sentences are verbs. An important element of control and revision is your ability to identify, understand and change the type of verbs you use.


"Stop" sentences use the verb “to be” or a linking verb. Linking verbs include seems, smells, feels, tastes, appears, becomes, and looks.  These sentences are formally called equative sentences, because they equate one thing with another.  The verb is the mathematical equivalent of an “=” sign. 


"Go" sentences use transitive verbs (these have an object) or intransitive verbs (these do not).   They may include a verb with a helping verb, like “am going” or “is thinking” or “were playing” or “might go” or could have been tried”


You should be able to move back and forth from "stop" to "go" sentences.


To choose a different metaphor, the stop sentence is the verbal equivalent of a film "establishing" shot. It says "here is the situation in which we find ourselves" or "here is an established truth."


I. The "stop" sentences. 


A. The Be-Pattern: Equative Clauses


The following sentences are equative clauses. They have nouns in the 1st and 3rd slots, connected by a form of the verb be = is.


Business is business.

Knowledge is power.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty.

Honesty is the best policy.


The borrower is servant to the lender.


One subclass of the equative clause is metaphor--the equation of apparently unlike things for the purpose of developing a new insight.


Life is a pilgrimage.

All the world's a stage.

A faithful friend is the medicine of life.

Money is the root of all evil.


Then, too, instead of using a noun in the 1st or 3rd slot, we can use an adjective before or after the verb be.


Love is blind.

Beauty is skin-deep.

Example is better than precept.

Fact is often stranger than ficiton.

Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life.


B. Linking Verbs:


Less common than the equative clause is the pattern that uses linking verbs. By using linking verbs such as appears, seems, or feels in place of a be verb, you will be making your sentences less strongly assertive and considerably more tentative.


Beauty often appears to be skin-deep.

Honesty seems to be the best policy.


Try to avoid using linking verbs of this sort unless it is your specific purpose to draw attention to the ambiguity itself. For instance:


Bush's foreign policy seems to be working in Eastern Europe.

Under Clinton's leadership, the economy appears to be accelerating.


II. The "go" sentences


A.  The Intransitive


The third basic sentence pattern is the intransitive.


Accidents will happen.

The fool wanders, the wise man travels.

Pride goeth before destruction.


B. The Transitive:


And now, here are examples of the fourth basic sentence pattern, the transitive, with its subject, verb, and direct object:


The end justifies the means.

Might makes right.

Curiosity killed the cat.

Clothes make the man.

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

A stitch in time saves time.

Nature abhors a vacuum.



Short Sentences at Work in Paragraphs:


Exercise 1


Study the following example from Norman Mailer for its repetition of be-patterns. What do you notice about its rhythm and movement?


It was dreary. There was danger, but it was remote; there was diversion, but it was rare. For the most part it was work, and work of the most distasteful character, work which was mean and long.


Imitate the Mailer example, above, to describe a boring class, dull job, hot day et cetera. (1 short paragraph). Use only "stop" sentences.


Exercise 2


Now examine this second example by Thomas Merton which blends transitive and intransitive sentences for a description of vigorous and energetic behavior.


He cried out loud. He swore at the top of his lungs. He fired off a gun and made the people listen. He roared and he boasted and he made himself known. He blew back into the teeth of the wind and stamped on the rolling earth, swearing up and down that he could make it all stop with his invention. The crowd listened in frenzied anticipation.


Blend transitive/intransitive sentences to describe an intense action, e.g., an angry father, a riot, a close point in a tennis match et cetera (1 short paragraph). Use only "go" sentences


Exercise 3


Using the paragraphs that you produced for the previous two exercises, break their prevailing mode by introducing at their close a sentence pattern from the opposite scale of activity, i.e., use a transitive/intransitive sentence to enliven the static paragraph and a be-pattern sentence to bring the active paragraph to a stop (2 short paragraphs).



The Short Sentence as Focus or Punctuation:


One of the most important functions of a short sentence (whether it be a transitive/intransitive or an equative clause) is to focus or punctuate a series of longer sentences.   It is a drumbeat, a punch, or in film, a close-up shot.


In Exercise 3 you were asked to experiment with a "stop" sentence (an equative clause) at the end of your active paragraph and a "go" sentence (transitive/intransitive) at the end of your static paragraph. A short sentence, however, is not restricted in its placement; it may be used at the beginning, the middle, or the end of your paragraph for different purposes. For example:


Charles Dickens belongs to the world. He is a titan of literature, and his own moving life-story, with its radiance of laughter, its conquests of genius, and its dark and fateful drift toward disillusion even in the midst of universal acclaim, epitomizes hardly less powerfully than his works the mingled comedy and tragedy of the human struggle. (Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens)


No other natural phenomenon on the planet--not even mountains five miles high, rivers spilling over cliffs, or redwood forests--evokes such reverence as the ocean. Yet this same "all-powerful" ocean now proves as slavishly subservient to natural laws as a moth caught by candlelight. The ocean obeys. It heeds. It complies. It has its tolerances and its stresses. And when th4ese are surpassed, the ocean falters. (Wesley Marx, The Frail Ocean)


He stood in the rain, unable to move, not knowing if the lovers were real or simply creations of the lightning and when it stopped, they stopped; unless of course he was dreaming one of those dreams from which he would awaken in that pain which is also sharpest pleasure, having loved in sleep. But the cold rain was real; so was the sudden soft moan from the poolhouse door. He fled. (Gore Vidal, Washington, D.C.)



Exercise 4


Develop 3 brief paragraphs like the above examples. Use a short sentence at the beginning of your 1st paragraph to focus the reader's attention, i.e., a topic sentence. Use a short sentence (or a trio of short sentences) in the middle of your 2nd paragraph to help the reader to pivot or shift from one position to another. And use a short sentence at the end of your 3rd paragraph to provide the reader with a strong conclusion. Underline the short sentences in your 3 paragraphs.


The Short Sentence (or Base Clause) with Right-Branching Free Modification:


The preservation of very brief sentences in the middle of extensive elaboration is crucial for your development as a writer. In the following sample, the italicized segments are the base clauses, while the remainder, set off by commas, consist of free modifiers which branch off to the right-hand side or after the base clause itself. The final product? A short base clause with right-branching free modification! 


He is the puritan, holding to the tradition of Socrates's cheerful indifference to bodily pleasures, but disposed to mistake this indifference for a rather grim and graceless asceticism. He can see no distinction between trust in providence and submission to fate. He marches, in the filthy rags of righteousness, with his face set towards a peak of infallible wisdom and virtue, which even the small company of the elect have little or no hope to climb. (F. M. Cornford, Before and After Socrates)


Exercise 5


Write 2 brief paragraphs of your own in imitation of Cornford's example. In the first paragraph, use an equative clause to begin and then an intransitive/transitive sentence to conclude. In the second paragraph, reverse this order by opening with an intransitive or transitive sentence and then closing with an equative clause. How do the two strategies differ and why?


The Cornford paragraph is the work of an experienced writer, but you shouldn't panic if you're not familiar with its components. We will learn these in due time. For now, however, concentrate on preserving the essential status of the short base clause while you add details to the right of it.


Compiled by Jesse Easley and modified by Christine Pense after Virginia Tufte’s Grammar as Style workbook.