A “Dirty Dozen” Ways to Begin Sentences and Get Rhythm

Girl riding a horse
This girl loves to ride!                                                   Photo: Everett Robinson. All rights reserved.

Sloppy Sentence Starters

At the beginning of each semester, a fair number of my student writers relied on “The Sloppy Seven” sentence starters. In any given paragraph, most of their sentences began with The, I, He, She, They, We, As, or It. Each student had his or her favorites. Dave (name changed) started three out of five sentences in one essay with The. Ellie (name changed) started four out of six with I. So the students could see, at a glance, how frequently they used them, I highlighted the words they repeated.

For example:
My niece is passionate about horses. She loves to brush them and braid their manes and tails. She doesn’t even complain about mucking out the stalls. She takes lessons twice a week and goes to competitions. My sister pays the bills, so she hopes my niece outgrows this hobby. I bet someday she’ll be buying a horse.

As I taught other ways to begin sentences, my students varied their first words and found that this automatically varied their sentence structures, too! More rhythmic, more sophisticated, better-written paragraphs resulted. And these were more interesting to readers.

The “Dirty Dozen”

There are unlimited ways to begin sentences. Quick ’n’ dirty, here’s what you need to know. Start every sentence in a paragraph with a different part of speech. Once you do that, your sentence structures will vary themselves naturally. Voila! A “dirty dozen” parts of speech with which to begin sentences:

  • 1. Noun (person, place or thing—-cat, restaurant, freedom)

Jack went to the movies.
The Pepsi had no fizz. (Don’t count the articles a, an, or the. For now, pretend they are invisible at the beginning of your sentences.)

  • 2. Adjective (describes a person, place or thing—-greedy, mindboggling, necessary)

Spiky hair is all the rage nowadays.

  • 3. Verb ending in –ed (action or being word——slurped, wanted, ate [we don’t say, “eated”])

Torn, the tissue disintegrated. (Note that “torn” is the –ed form of the verb “tear”)
Disgusted, she ran to the kitchen for another tissue.

  • 4. Verb ending in –ing (action or being word——-smirking, having, manufacturing)

Bouncing like a jack-in-the-box, my puppy tried to jump into my arms.
Laughing, I bent to let him lick my face.

  • 5. infinitive phrase (to + verb—–to rake, to exploit, to wonder)

To run in a 5K, you must build endurance.

  • 6. Pronoun (takes the place of a noun—–he, its, our)

You never tell me you love me.
We have to break up.

  • 7. Adverb phrase that tells where (modifies a verb—–back at home, beside Jae, under my thumb)

Overhead, clouds grew angry.
Far away, thunder rumbled and boomed.

  • 8. Adverb phrase that tells when (modifies a verb——last year, soon, ’til death do us part)

Tomorrow everyone will take sticky buns in their lunches.

  • 9. Adverb phrase that tells how (modifies a verb—–with my teeth, cleverly, slicker than Ted)

Step by step, the monster crept toward the house.
Slowly, it unsheathed its claws.

  • 10. Prepositional phrase (usually 3 words, headed by a preposition, shows relationship between two things in the sentence—–in the basket, before the break, with my mom)

In the beginning, Pam was afraid she might get sick.

  • 11. Interjection (short burst of emotion—-Hey! What? No!)

Darn it—I just bought that Lexus.
Ha! Too bad it came with a scratch on the hood.

  • 12. Subordinating conjunction (links dependent clause to main clause—–after, though, until, while, as if, as soon as, unless…). These often begin adverb phrases.

As if I were the only one in the building, I sang my heart out.
Because my throat was sore, I couldn’t sing in the musical anyway.

Exercise: Let’s look again at our student paragraph.

My niece is passionate about horses. She loves to brush them and braid their manes and tails. She doesn’t even complain about mucking out the stalls. She takes lessons twice a week and goes to competitions. My sister pays the bills, so she hopes my niece outgrows this hobby. I bet someday she’ll be buying a horse.

You may find it easier to work with your first words if you take your sentences out of paragraph. Right now, we have these sentence-beginning words:

My (pronoun); simple
She (pronoun); simple
She (pronoun); simple
She (pronoun); simple
My (pronoun); compound
I (pronoun); simple

When you look at the first words in a list like this, you can really see how limited the sentence variety is. Every sentence begins with a pronoun, and all but one are simple sentence structures! Now, how can we change some of the words to improve the structures and rhythm?

My niece is passionate about horses. Brushing them is like meditation to her, and she loves to braid their tails and manes. Because she wants them to stay healthy, she doesn’t even complain about mucking out the stalls. Lessons twice a week and monthly competitions hone her skills at cantering and jumping. As the one who pays for all of this, my sister hopes she outgrows this hobby. But I bet someday she’ll be buying a horse.

My (pronoun); simple
Brushing (-ing verb); compound
Because (subordinating conjunction); complex
Lessons (noun); simple
As (preposition); complex
But (conjunction); compound-complex

Notice how we not only made the paragraph sound better, but increased the variety in sentence structures from 5 simple and 1 compound to 2 simple, 1 compound, 2 complex, and 1 compound-complex.

Try Another

Here’s another paragraph in which I varied my first words:

Writing (noun—I know it looks like an -ing verb, but here, writing acts as a thing, which is a noun) is all about moving your readers. By that (prepositional phrase), I mean evoking their emotions. Effective (adjective) writers choose words wisely and combine them in various ways to gain readers’ attention, keep them interested, and drive them to action. Using (-ing verb—now you’ve got a verb!) only one structure makes your sentences sound sing-songy, and this rhythm makes you sound unsophisticated. You (pronoun) will likely lose your readers. Ack! (interjection) To write (infinitive phrase) like this might seem difficult at first. Over time (adverb phrase: when), though, constructing varied structures will become second nature. Although (subordinating conjunction) it takes longer to vary your sentences (adverb phrase: why), you’ll be richly rewarded when your readers love—and especially when they buy—your work.

Here are the sentences in a list:

Writing (noun); simple
By that (prepositional phrase); complex
Effective (adjective); simple
Using (-ing verb); compound
You (pronoun); simple
Ack! (interjection); simple
To write (infinitive phrase); simple
Over time (adverb phrase: when); complex
Although (subordinating conjunction) it takes longer to vary your sentences (adverb phrase: why); compound-complex

Now, without even trying to, I managed to create sentences in this order:

simple
complex
simple
compound
simple
simple (interjection)
simple
complex
compound-complex

I also achieved sentences of widely varying lengths, which helps with that rhythm-thing.

Put This to Use!

Now go–use my Dirty Dozen to create your own amazing sentence structures!

4 thoughts on “A “Dirty Dozen” Ways to Begin Sentences and Get Rhythm”

  1. I agree, skyecaitlin! I find myself writing that way for my first drafts sometimes, but then make sure to vary my structures on revision. Thanks for the comment. Looks like you got cut off–hope you’ll come back and finish…

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    1. I like to basin storm or free write prior to revising; however, I am very quick to note this in anything I read for pleasure or knowledge; for example, certain writers may compose impeccable syntax and apply flawless diction, but they fail to create persona, and this, to me, is what draws in the audience. Some writers are too verbose, others can paint a picture in few words and create a feeling within the audience.

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  2. This is virtually an excellent example to point out the monotony of simple sentences in the formulaic subject/verb/direct object pattern. It creates tedium and needs to be varied and rewritten to capture the reader’s attention and keep the audience interested. Simple sentences immediately lose meaning because the audience gets lost amidst the rudimentary formula/

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