Good sentences don’t make good writing

Amy J. Devitt, Ph.D.
7 min readMay 21, 2017
Alex Eylar, Sentience Structure, flickr, licensed by CC 2.0

Tell me: Which of the sentences below is a good sentence?

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

[Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960]

“It was October 23, 2008.”

[Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise, 2012]

“Why are there so many robots in fiction, but none in real life?”

[Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, 1997]

“I am ten years old and I know every crack, bone and crevice in the crumbling sidewalk running up and down Randolph Street, my street.”

[Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run, 2016]

“Too often, the word rhetoric implies empty words, manipulation, deception, or persuasion at any cost.”

[Cheryl Glenn, The New Harbrace Guide, 2018]

“Not long ago we attended a talk at an academic conference where the speaker’s central claim seemed to be that a certain sociologist — call him Dr. X — had done very good work in a number of areas of the discipline.”

[Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say/I Say, 2017]

“On the fifteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool, In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool, He was splashing . . . enjoying the jungle’s great joy . . . When Horton the elephant heard a small noise.”

[Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! 1954]

“Written genres have been described in metaphors as seemingly contrary as straitjackets and playgrounds, tools and life forms, institutions and constellations.”

[Christine M. Tardy, Beyond Convention, 2016)

“One of the most central notions in this book is that of a formal system.

[Douglas R. Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach, 1979]

​Each of these sentences is the first sentence (after prefaces and introductions) of a book sitting on a bookshelf in my study.

And each is a good sentence.

Of course, you say. They’re all written by professionals, published authors. So of course they’re good sentences. I’d be happy to write sentences like that.

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Amy J. Devitt, Ph.D.

Writer, teacher, researcher, optimist. I explore language & everyday genres to help people see & choose the language & genres they use. www.amydevitt.com