In the first article of this series, we learned some of the kinds of clauses we can use to go from a plain sentence to a rich sentence.
But in this article, we take things a step further. Because if we want an elegant sentence, it isn’t sufficient to use these clauses willy nilly.
Take it from Joseph Williams, the author of Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. He says “what most makes a sentence graceful is a balance and symmetry among its parts, one echoing another in sound, rhythm, structure and meaning.”
Again for emphasis: the key ingredient to elegant sentences is balance and symmetry.
Most often, writers balance clauses joined by coordinating conjunctions, like "and" or "but". When we balance these so-called coordinated clauses, we have coordinated balance.
Here’s an example of coordinated balance:
For unless all the citizens of a state are forced by circumstances to compromise, unless they feel that they can affect policy but that no one can wholly dominate it, unless by habit and necessity they have to give and take, freedom cannot be maintained.
Williams writes an unbalanced version of this as a contrast:
Because unless all the citizens of a state are habitually forced by necessary circumstances to compromise in a way that lets them affect policy with no one dominating it, freedom cannot be maintained.
We can especially tell the difference when we read it aloud—give that a shot!
Here’s the balanced example in diagram form:
The subjects are bolded. The stresses are italicized.
- The clauses are parallel in structure: The parts of speech in each clause parallel one another. The subjects, the verbs, the objects.
- The subjects repeat: The writer repeats the subjects of the sentences: “all the citizens”, “they”, “they”. Notice the first clause deliberately uses a passive construction (“are forced by”). This is because the active form would have unbalanced the coordination.
- Parts of speech echo each other in meaning: Notice how nouns and verbs echo each other in a way. e.g. “affect policy” and “dominate it”. "Dominate" echoes "affect" in meaning, "it" echoes “policy” in meaning. Contrast that with a sentence like “The kids rode bikes and Sally ate seashells.” No echoing in meaning.
- Parts of speech echo each other in sound (somewhat): Notice how "forced" and "feel" have some cross-clause alliteration going.
Also, notice the phrase “habit and necessity”. While the writer could have used just “habit” or just “necessity”, he chose to use both. Why?
Because it adds the bounce of poetic rhythm. Because it then parallels the next phrase “give and take”. Because it adds a slight texture that can’t be captured with one word alone.
Graceful writers—especially poets who write prose, I’ve noticed—tend to use two words + a coordinating conjunction when they could have just used the one word.
Moving on, we can also balance sentence structures that aren’t coordination. See how in this example, the subject balances the object:
Each of the parts of speech parallel one another: “creates” parallels “construe”, “revolutionary views” parallels “reality”, etc.
Here are some examples of balance in the wild.
From Here is New York, by E.B. White:
Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.
- E.B. White
(Aside: Semicolons 😩 basically use them where you would use commas. Then you get these dramatic pauses in the middle of your sentence. They function like an end-stop in verse. See the opening to this article.)
Maria Papova using balance across sentences:
Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom.
Some tweets from @shl with balance:
A tweet from @naval with balance:
I wrote this one in January that I was proud of (existential angst incoming):
Like fish swim in water, we swim in games of status and ego. Fish sometimes forget they're in the water and we sometimes forget we're in the game.
I do think there’s something to balance Williams gets at that isn’t just parallel structure. I don’t have a clean answer to that yet. So just letting you know.
That’s all for this post, but another part of elegance is ending your sentences with impact. Continue onto part 3 of this series to learn four ways to do just that..
Tip: Cook the crepes and sauces before the Boeuf Bourguignon
When you use coordination, arrange your phrases in order of short to long number of syllables. Not a hard and fast rule (there are exceptions), but generally more pleasing to the ear.
I cook crepes, sauces, and Boeuf Bourguignon.
I cook Boeuf Bourguignon, crepes and sauces.
This applies in more complex cases of coordination as well.