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PARTS & SECTIONS

Click on any  part or section below:

Part I. Basics/Process

  A. Chapters 1-6: Start

  B. Ch. 7-13: Organize

  C. Ch. 14-20: Revise/Edit

Part II. College Writing

   D. Ch. 21-23: What Is It?

   E. Ch. 24-30: Write on Rdgs.

   F. Ch.31-35: Arguments

  G. Ch. 36-42: Research

  H. Ch. 43-48: Literature

   I.  Ch. 49-58: Majors & Work

Part III. Grammar 

   www.OnlineGrammar.org
 
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 Study Questions
     

 

                                            

Chapter 15: PEACOCK SENTENCES

                 
How can you make easily readable sentences?

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Introduction: Grammar the Deadly Killer?

English Sentence: Two Simple Parts

Land of Peacock Sentences

Nose Feathers

Baby Peacocks

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Writing clear sentences is a craft that requires you know the basic three parts of a sentence.  This chapter uses the symbol of an animal to represent the three parts of a typical sentence.  Then the chapter shows you how to use these three parts to make sentences much clearer to readers.

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Introduction: Grammar the Deadly Killer?

The grammatical sentence always has been—in too many English classes—a traditional, formal, even pompous affair that many students have learned to hate or, at least, to avoid.  If you were one of these students, you probably were among the majority of your classmates in elementary and high school—if indeed you even had any formal instruction in how to write a sentence. 

Either way, once you have tried to use or even have just looked at a formal grammar handbook, you may feel that the formal rules of making sentences, sentence parts, and punctuation for them are a highly specialized method of torture invented just to cause you exquisite suffering.  You may have found yourself sweating over papers and growing red in the face when speaking in public as you try to figure out where to put the pauses of commas and colons, where to begin and end sentences, and how to use them to start, continue, and end paragraphs.  A popular fantasy in the backs of the minds of many people, in fact, is that the whole grammar thing was invented by evil grammar villains: little, ancient gnomes with umpteen college degrees working in small rooms in high towers of dark university castles in rooms never lit by the sun, who gather secretly just to make the rules torturous so that no one will ever, ever—no matter how hard he or she tries—get the grammar thing right. 

This reminds me of my hardest teacher ever, Mrs. Seward, and her best student, Alice Robinson.  I took Mrs. Seward’s English courses twice, in my first and third years of high school, and I dreaded each one.  She was everything traditional and formal that Mr. Golding from the "How I Learned" chapter was, but with none of Mr. Golding's fun and fire.  Mrs. Seward was nearly the smallest person in the whole school, teachers and students included, and yet possibly the scariest.  Even other teachers feared her knife-quick ear for grammar mistakes as they stumbled over their speech when she was nearby. 

I was a very good student, but I couldn’t quite get past Mrs. Seward.  When I was her student, she never gave out more than one “A” per course, and sometimes not any.  And my main competitor in high school, Alice Robinson, knew her grammar a little better than I.  In addition, Alice was willing to slave away over learning the rules of grammar more than I was.  Mrs. Seward made the sentence, and indeed all grammar, as torturous as my worst dreams.   We memorized rules and recited them.  We had objective tests that required definition and example, and multiple-choice tests on good and bad usage of grammar.  We diagrammed the parts of sentences endlessly. 

I learned a lot from Mrs. Seward, and I owe her a debt of thanks, especially since I became an English teacher myself.  I also owe an even greater debt of thanks to my mother, an elementary and later a Carl Sandberg Community College teacher, who spent much of my early years correcting my grammar.  She and Mrs. Seward together did quite a job both for me and on me.

However, in all honesty, I think my mother’s grammar lessons were better because they were in situ, which means they occurred right in each situation. I was talking, and she corrected me--gently but firmly--as I actually practiced communicating. 

I’m not sure that Mrs. Seward’s drill-and-kill methods were the best way for many, maybe even most, people in my classes.  I suspect that we should have done more writing practice, perhaps some grammar games, and maybe some visualizations--some imaginations--of what the English sentence is and does.  In any case, to continue the story about Alice Robinson and me, Alice kept beating me for that one “A” per semester, and I had to settle every semester for a "B+."  Even so, Alice and I were among only a handful of people who were able to memorize most of the rules and then apply them to our writing.  If Mrs. Seward's lessons were hard for me, they must have been a nightmare for half the class.  Mrs. Seward represented the traditional, more rule-bound, and difficult-to-learn aspect of the English sentence.  Indeed, when I was in high school, I would not have been surprised to discover that she, herself, had been elected to serve as one of the mysterious, ancient gnomes in their ivory towers who seem to create grammar rules to bring humankind misery.

When I started teaching, I came across a number of students who said, typically, “I have never understood grammar and probably never will.”  I decided that part of the problem was not in these students or in grammar itself, but rather in the way that grammar is taught.  Lessons in grammar primarily use what is sometimes called the left side or the “verbal-logical” part of the brain—the same part that tends to help people learn foreign languages, abstract mathematics, and literary texts well.  However, a significant number of undergraduate college students learn better using another part of the brain, one sometimes called the right side or “visual-sensory” part.  And some students are more comfortable using both parts.  Grammar instruction really is not well developed in most textbooks to help students who prefer a partly or wholly visual-sensory orientation. 

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English Sentence: Two Simple Parts

So, in my early years of teaching, I began to look for a more visual symbol of the sentence as a starting point for explaining grammar.  I thought of everything—planes, trains, and automobiles; bacteria, animals, birds, and people; machines; weather patterns; etc.  One of my early ideas came from my first-grade teacher, who used the symbol of a train.  “Imagine,” she used to say, in words like this but aimed at first graders, “that a sentence is like a train.  The subject of the car is the engine.  It pulls the train.  The verb of the sentence is the coal car.  It gives the sentence energy.  And all the other cars coming after it are the rest of the words in a sentence that make it more interesting.”

The engine and coal car symbol are not bad, but I decided right away not to use it.  This was because my first-grade teacher, years earlier, had been as ancient as the hills even then.  By the time I started teaching, coal cars were a thing of the past.  Second, the idea of a sentence being like a train seemed to me a bit too mechanical.  I wanted something conveying the idea of the sentence being a living, breathing organism, one with a life of its own.

That is when I decided to compare the sentence to an animal.  The animal’s head would represent the subject of a sentence; its body would represent the verb of a sentence.  Here’s why.  All sentences in the English language have a subject and a verb: all of them.  In some languages, they don’t, but in English they do.  In Latin, for example, you could say, I love in one word and thus have a one-word sentence:

Amo.
  

In other words, some other languages show a direct correspondence between an act and a single word to represent it.  However, we speakers of the English language (and those who speak many other languages as well) divide all acts into two parts: the doer of the act and the physical act itself.  This means that if I want to translate the Latin “Amo,” above, into English, I must divide it into (a) who is doing it and (b) what is being done:

I           love.
  

 There are many two-word sentences in English, each with a “head” (the subject) and a “body” (the verb):

Subject (who does it)    Verb (what is being done)

We                         talked.

   I                          relaxed.

You                           ran.    
    

One of the most famous two-word sentences in English can be found in the Christian New Testament:

Jesus                       wept.”     
  

Even the sentences that are called command sentences, such as

Go.

Come here.

Know thyself.
  

All command sentences like these have what are called "understood" subjects:

(You) go.

(You) come here.

(You) know thyself.
  

Thus every complete sentence in formal English--even a command sentence--has at least two parts: the subject (or head) and the verb (or body).  But what, I asked myself, about the rest of most sentences. Most sentences contain a lot more words and phrases than just the simple subject and simple verb.  In fact, some writers--and literary works--are famous for their long sentences.  Here is an example of just two sentences from one of the United States' most famous and most awarded writers ever, William Faulkner (with beginning subjects and verbs underlined):

[The bear] loomed and towered in [the boy’s] dreams before he even saw the...woods [where no ax had ever been used] where it left its crooked print, shaggy, tremendous, red-eyed, not malevolent but just bit, too big for the dogs which tried to [howl at] it, for the horses which tried to ride it down, for the men and the bullets they fired into it; too big for the very country which was its constricting scope.  It was as if the boy had already divined what his senses and intellect had not encompassed yet: that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness, men myriad and nameless even to one another in the land where the old bear had earned a name, and through [the bear] ran not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable ad invincible out of an old dead tie, a phantom, [symbol] and [high point] of the old wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear like pygmies about the ankles of a drowsing elephant…. (1532. William Faulkner. “The Bear.” American Poetry and Prose, 4th Ed., Part II. Ed. Norman Foerster. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.)

Again, this long passage has but two extra-long sentences in it, no more.  They prove that the English sentence, though built on a simple, two-part, subject-verb pairing, can expand to a very wonderful and rich development with so many colorful additions. 

So, to get back to my story about choosing an animal to represent the sentence, what kind of animal can represent both the simplicity of a basic sentence and the richness and color of longer sentences in English?  I thought about a number of animals with obvious tails, and almost chose the fox because of its bushy tail.  But finally, I decided that the peacock--with its long, very colorful tail feathers and its additional little feather on top of its head--would be best:

                Ash               

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Land of Peacock Sentences

I have been teaching "peacock sentence making" to college students since about 1988.  But only recently did I find a great free image of the peacock, in all its glory, to use on the web to explain what I have been teaching in class:

                                                                                       Martin

         
I tell my classes that a peacock must have a head and a body to survive. A sentence in English also must have a head and a body to survive. The subject--the person, place, or thing the sentence is about--is the head of the peacock. In addition, the verb--the active part--is the body of the peacock. 
(Subject and verb are underlined.)


 
  
The peacock
 (head )           

 

 
    
is walking.
 
(body )           

     

             
Peacocks also have feathers--some very beautiful ones, sometimes. The feathers curve out from the rear in an array of rainbow designs, catching light, floating, waving, sometimes even dragging on the ground, so long are they. These feathers on the tail are all the different words and phrases a person can add to to the end of a sentence to make it more colorful and descriptive:


 
  
The peacock
 (head )           

 

 
    
is walking
 
(body )           

           
  

around the yard,                 
trailing its feathers
  
(tail         
 and calling to us.
 feathers)    

     

   
Also, look at the peacock's head--did you ever notice that a peacock has a comb of beautiful feathers sticking up and back from its head? There are several of these head feathers, perhaps so they do not get in the way of the body:

   
Proud and strong,
 (head feathers )            
the peacock
 (head )                   

 

 
    
is walking
 
(body )                   

           
  

around the yard,                 
trailing its feathers
  
(tail         
 and calling to us.
 feathers)    

 

     

 
We also can label the peacock's parts as follows:

S - V - m

These three letters stand for Subject-Verb-modifiers. We have discussed subjects and verbs. Modifiers simply are added words that modify or describe something. They are all the words and phrases that are not part of the main subject or main verb.  Here is how our peacock looks with the S-V-M label:

   
(
m) Proud and strong,
 (head feathers )            
(
S) the peacock  (head )                   

 

 
    
 (
V) is walking  (body )                   

           
  

(m) around the yard,                 
trailing its feathers
  
(tail         
 and calling to us.
 feathers)    

 

     

 
The head feathers also can go right after the peacock's head, like this:

 

 
(
S) The peacock,  (head )                   

(m) proud and strong,  (head feathers )    

 

 

 
    
 (
V) is walking  (body )                   

           
  

(m) around the yard,                 
trailing its feathers
  
(tail         
 and calling to us.
 feathers)   

 

     

     
So, we are left with four types of peacock sentence constructions:

S-V

S-V-m

m-S-V-m

S-m-V-m

All four are very much the same--what we can now call the "SVm" peacock model of the sentence. We will use this label--"SVm"--to refer to all four of the above sentence models as we discuss sentence construction below.

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Nose Feathers

In the world of SVm peacock sentences, one very important principle principle about S-V-m peacock sentence making is this: never stick a bunch of tail feathers on a peacock's nose.  When a peacock has a bunch of tail feathers on its nose, it cannot see where it is going.  It is likely to fall down or wander off, blind.  Similarly, if you place a large number of words--long, introductory phrases--at the beginnings of your sentences, or right after the subject, you are more likely to lose control of your sentence.  People who place lots of modifiers--long phrases right before or after their subjects, are more likely to lose track of exactly where and how the subject or the verb goes.  They also are more likely to lose track of where commas and other punctuation should go. 

For example, here is a "nose feathers" sentence.  It has lots of long, introductory words and phrases before the subject:

In the morning, before dawn but after the dew, calling and walking in circles but never feeling happy, never knowing love or affection, never feeling fed or watered, restless, tired, drooping, and wondering whether the day would ever be over before it even started, 

the peacock  (head )  

waited.  (body )  

           

  

"Nose feathers" on sentences also present a big problem for readers.  The problem is that readers must wait a long time to find out the main part of what is happening--which is the subject and verb. You have to wait too long before you get to the subject and the verb. Imagine a long scholarly essay or professional article with lots of sentences like this. You would find it harder to read quickly and easily.  A sentence like this often can just as easily be written with the nose feathers coming later in the sentence, preferably at the end: not only can you as a writer keep better control of the sentence, but your readers also will be able to read it much more easily.  Look, for example, at the sentence below.  It is the same as the one above except that all the "m's"--the modifier peacock feathers--are back on the end of the peacock instead of on its nose:

 

 

The peacock  (head )  

 

waited  (body )  

         
in the morning, before dawn but after the dew, calling and walking in circles but never feeling happy, never knowing love or affection, never feeling fed or watered, restless, tired, drooping, and wondering whether the day would ever be over before it even started.
  
(tail
feathers )     

     

This latter version of the sentence, immediately above, is so much easier to read because the subject and verb come right away.  In fact, some of our greatest literary authors write using very long sentences but, as in the example quoted above from William Faulkner, the subject and verb of each sentence come very early in the sentence, thus making all the additional phrases after them much easier to understand.

Remember, too, the peacock's head feathers.  They symbolize the fact that it is okay, in making clear sentences, to add a few introductory words--a short introductory phrase--at the beginning of a sentence or just after the subject.  A few words will not get in the way of easy reading.  Here are some examples:

In the morning, we went to town to buy some flash drives on sale.

John and Megan, walking fast, hurried into the store before us.

As a result, the two of them, lucky people, won door prizes for being first.

These sentences are not difficult to read even with some head feathers attached.  That is because the subject and the verb of each sentence come relatively quickly, making the sentences easy to read--and more easily controllable for the writer.  Just make sure your head feathers don't become a big bunch of nose feathers.  The best kind of writing for the sake of clarity for readers, and ease of writing well for yourself, is the SVm model: write your sentences subject-verb-modifiers, subject-verb-modifiers, subject-verb-modifiers, each one, time after time. 

You don't need to do this in a first draft.  In fact, it might be bad for you in a first draft!  Just write your first drafts freely, getting your content out onto the paper.  However, try revising a paper of yours--or even one page of it--in this way.  Then put it down for a day.  Then, when you're alert, reread the new version.  How does it now flow?  Is it easier to read?  The secret is subject-verb-modifiers.

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Baby Peacocks

However, there is one exception to the guideline about avoiding nose feathers.  Many writers famous, scholarly, and professional take good advantage of this exception.  The exception is that if the introductory or interrupting words are actually a "dependent clause," then they are allowable.  In peacock language, this means that if the nose feathers are, instead, a "baby peacock," they can be easily understood.  What is a baby peacock?  It is a little peacock--a little sentence with its own head and body (subject and verb) that is still dependent on its parent.  It is not a sentence--a peacock--that can stand alone because of the way it is constructed.  But it does have its own little head (subject) and body (verb).  For example,


 
  
If someone agrees,
 
(baby peacock
)           

 

then Marty and Suzi  (head )

  

can complete    (body )  

  

 

            

their project          
in the morning    
(tail feathers )  

     

             

 
Here is an example of a baby peacock with its own little tail feathers:
  


 
  
If someone agrees,
 
to the new plan,        
(baby peacock
 

then Marty and Suzi  (head )

  

can complete    (body

  

            

their project       
in the morning.   
(tail feathers ) 

     

             

 

And here is an example of a baby peacock that is riding on its parent's neck or back:
  


 
  
 

        
 

Marty and Suzi,  (head )

if someone agrees,  
to the new plan,        
(baby peacock)           

can complete     (body

               

their project       
in the morning.   
(tail feathers ) 

    

             

  
Here are a few more examples of baby peacocks:

When they eat in the morning, peacocks do not need to eat again until evening.

Peacocks, if they are fed a correct diet, can live for several years.

A healthy male peacock may live much longer than most other birds are able to survive.

Once again, because a baby peacock has its own little subject and verb, it is more readable.  As a result, you can use baby peacocks at the beginnings of sentences or between the main subject and verb, and readers can usually understand the complete sentence without too much extra concentration.  And as a result, you, the writer, usually can keep control of your sentence, its subject and verb, and its punctuation marks without too much additional confusion.  You are still using a repeated SVm pattern--subject-verb-modifiers, subject-verb-modifiers, etc.--but sometimes with some additional baby peacocks--mini SVm clauses--thrown in.

Must you write using baby peacocks?  The answer is no--write how you like.  The only important guidelines in this regard are to be clear and to vary your sentence lengths.  You can be clear by using a consistent SVm pattern.  And you can vary the lengths of your sentences either by adding more tail feathers, by occasionally throwing in some baby peacocks, or by doing both.

Peacock sentence writing can also help you understand and cure the most common college-level grammar and punctuation error--the dreaded comma splice.  Peacocks also make understanding colons (" : ") and semicolons (" ; ") easier.  For more about these problems, see the chapter on "Peacock Punctuation."

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C. Revise/Edit
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Click on any chapter below:

Chapters:

14. What Is "Revising"?

15. Peacock Sentences

16. Peacock Punctuation

17. Punctuation Review

18. 5 Special Methods

19. Typing/Printing

20Revision Checklist

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Additional:

Activities
                         

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 Related Links in
OnlineGrammar.org:

  5. Choosing Words

  6. Making Sentences

  8. General Editing

  9. Spelling

10. Punctuation

11. Grammar Guides

13. Help for ESL/NNS

15. Writing Books & Tutors

19. Visual/Other Design                

 

Updated 23 Oct. 2015

  

   

 

WritingforCollege.org also is at CollegeWriting.info and WforC.org

Natural URL: www.tc.umn.edu/~jewel001/CollegeWriting/home.htm
1st through 5th Editions:: Writing for School & Work, 1984-1998; CollegeWriting.info, 1998-2012.
6th Edition: 8-1-12, rev. 8-1-13.  Text, design, and photos copyright 2002-12 by R. Jewell or as noted.
Permission is hereby granted for nonprofit educational copying and use without a written request.
Images courtesy of Barry's Clip Art, Clip Art Warehouse, The Clip Art Universe, Clipart Collection, MS Clip Art Gallery and Design Gallery Live, School Discovery, and Web Clip Art
Click here to contact the author: Richard Jewell.  Questions and suggestions are welcome.