Sentence combining

13th February 2004 at 00:00
Here's a good starter activity: see how many ways the class can find for combining two sentences into a single sentence. It may already be part of your repertoire, but you may not know that it has an official name:

"sentence combining".

And you may not know that this is a guaranteed route to better writing. In 1986, an American academic, George Hillocks, surveyed five research projects on the effects of sentence combining, and reported impressive results. In his words, "the idea is for students to learn the syntactic possibilities", and it works - they produce more varied sentences because they know more patterns. The rules are simple: the output sentence consists of the two input sentences with minor modifications, but no change to their basic meanings; so you could change "I was late" into "but I was late" but not into "I was early" or "I am late". On the other hand, the output sentence will be more than the sum of its parts because it will add something about how the two basic sentences are related to each other. You might invite the class to explain this effect for each sentence offered.

Suppose you give them this pair: The wind howled. Boris trudged home.

The most boring combinations use either "and" or even a mere semi-colon:

* The wind howled and Boris trudged home.

* The wind howled; Boris trudged home.

Even these combinations have an effect, even if it is no more than a promise that there is some kind of connection between the howling and the trudging. But there are far more interesting possibilities which will push a KS3 class to its syntactic limits:

* Although the wind howled, Boris trudged home.

* The wind howled as Boris trudged home.

* The wind howling, Boris trudged home.

Whether you use technical terms like "subordinate clause" is up to you, but it seems a pity to miss this chance to talk about adverbial clauses and participles in a natural way. You could even turn the activity into a competition between groups in the class, with points awarded (by you) for ambition - for example: 1 for co-ordination (eg "and"); 2 for subordinate clauses with easy conjunctions like "when"; 3 for more ambitious subordinate clauses (eg "although"); and 4 for subordinate clauses with participle such as "howling". Input pairs don't all offer the same range of possibilities, of course. For example: The snow was falling fast. Boris trudged through the snow. If they overlap, the overlapping bit (here, "the snow") can be omitted or turned into a pronoun:

* Boris trudged through the snow, which was falling fast.

* The snow, which Boris trudged through, was falling fast.

Welcome to relative clauses! By choosing input sentences well you can push the class in whatever direction you want. Recommended!

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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