Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Subject of Sentences

The new AQA English Language GCSE has a bullet point on Question 2, Paper 1, suggesting students might want to comment on sentences. Well sentence forms, if we are going to be pedantic about things. It is a small bullet point, so it might be easily missed when students franticly write an answer to the question: How does the writer use language to describe…?

I have a lot of problems with asking students to write about sentences. I love a good sentence. They are squishy and joyously fun to squeeze and poke. I love a crisp, brief sentence like Susan Hill’s sentences when she isn’t writing horror stories. I also love crammed sentence like the one’s Dickens uses. Go on, just add another clause. The problem I have is that we are often so basic when talking about sentences.

In fact, part of the problem comes from the language we have to describe a sentence. The basic terms of simple, compound and complex actually hinder expression. I have seen students crow bar the following phrases into their analysis.

The writer uses a simple sentence to show how simple his thoughts are at the moment.

The writer uses a complex sentence to show how complex his thoughts are at the moment.

Sadly, the words simple, complex and compound are very misleading to students because of the terms alone. If a student then has cottoned on that you could replace simple, compound and complex sentences with long and short sentences, you then get sentences like these ones:

The writer uses a long sentence to create atmosphere and slow things down.

The writer uses a short sentence to create pace.

The problem is that students have, at this point, not said anything precise, or even meaningful about the texts. In their heads, it might sound good, but in reality they are pretty bland and meaningless. Part of the problem is the terminology. Another part of the problem is the fact that students view sentences as something to be analysed in isolation. All sentences have hidden tendrils. They link to the sentences before and after them invisibly. Therefore, any discussion on sentences must focus on the rest of the sentences. Take this example extract from ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus. It isn’t likely to be in the actual exam, because there isn’t enough for a student to talk about in terms of techniques; but it is enough for looking at sentences. Along as you have more than three sentences, you can say something meaningful.

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

Source: The Stranger by Albert Camus

So, what can we say about it? Well, it has lots of short sentences, so the writer is building up the pace of the story. The sentences are mainly simple, so this shows us that the narrator has simple thoughts about the death. Wrong! You can see how meaningless these terms can be.

I think students should know what the subject of a sentence is and be able to spot the subject in a sentence. Look at the extract and you see the following subjects.

1: Mother

2: ?

3: I

4: That

5: It

Sentences two and three are a little bit more complex, so I will come back to those later. What is interesting for me is the fact that the subject changes across the extract and more importantly the first sentence refers directly to the mother and the last sentence indirectly refers to the mother.

The subject of the last sentence refers to ‘it’ which creates a sense of distance compared to the first sentence which refers directly to the ‘mother’ and her death.

The first sentence has the ‘mother’ as the subject to reflect the shocked the narrator had to the event. The lack of any other words describing the subject highlights a lack of connection or thought. The voice doesn’t refer to her as ‘my mother’ or even use a more personal noun to describe her like ‘mum’ or ‘mummy’ suggests there is a level of detachment.  

Now, sentence two is quite interesting, because it is a grammatically incomplete. It should be a continuation of the first sentence joined by the co-ordinating conjunction ‘or’. The telegram message as part of sentence three is full of broken sentences, but that’s the convention of telegram writing.

The writer uses a grammatically incomplete sentence to create a level of informality and make the writing seem conversational. Therefore, the reader develops a personal connection to the narrator as they are speaking to them personally.     

The ends of the sentences are interesting too: today, yesterday, tomorrow, yesterday.

The writer tends to end sentences with a reference to a time which adds to the sense of confusion of the narrator and highlight a level of obsession.

In our teaching of the language questions, I feel that we need to be especially cautious with how we present it. Students need some clear structured teaching. Simple terminology will not work alone. In fact, I’d actively work against students use the words simple, compound, complex, long and short. I’d use these questions instead.

What is interesting about the way sentences start/end?

What is the subject of each sentence?

What is the connection /changes between the subjects?

How are the sentences structured?

Are sentences complete or incomplete?

How are the sentences linked?

From that starting point, I feel you come to most interesting points when talking about sentences. Then, you can add relevant terminology. However, there is nothing better for sentences than identifying the subject of each and every sentence. Then, look at how each sentence is linked.

It is interesting to note that identifying the subject of a sentence is directly supporting the structure question (Question 3) on the paper. My advice for teaching questions 2 and 3 on Paper 1 is focus on subject, subject and subject. Understand the subject of the sentences and extract and the rest follows.

No sentence is an island, so let’s stop treating them as discreet islands of meaning. Students, in fairness, only need to say one meaningful thing about sentences for question 2.  We just want that point to be meaningful and thoughtful. They can only be meaningful if students can see the trade routes in and out of that island.  

Thanks for reading,



  1. Good thoughts Chris. I wonder if your pupils might benefit just by using the sentence type instead of the "word/phrase" part of their analysis so, "The writer uses uses the adjective "brittle" in the simple sentence "Her voice had a nasal brittle quality." to convey a sense of Curley's Wife's fragility." Or "The blunt simple sentence, "The girl is dead now." highlights Mitch' s clumsiness and awkwardness when trying to talk with Blanche." Just a thought.
    Dave :) @davowillz

  2. Cheers, David. I see what you are saying. However, the first example isn't really explaining the choice of a sentence. The second example does, but the danger is relevance. It works here, but will it work for every short sentence? The worry is that students will hunt out a short sentence and zoom in on it, rather than think about the use of sentences. ;)

  3. Could they also look at the mix of statements, questions, commands or exclamations, as well as non-standard grammatical forms, to fulfil 'sentence forms'? I've found this helpful as long as they learn to link the form of the sentence to its content/meaning. For instance, in that Camus example, the series of bald declaratives produces a dull, informative tone that suggests suppressed emotion or detachment.