When teaching sentence skills, I begin by showing the class examples. Sometimes the examples show how to use the skill expertly; sometimes they show what happens when you botch it. I also show students passages of exceptionally good writing—to illustrate a concept, or to nourish their minds. Here are a few of those passages; the book includes many more.
Creating a scene with concrete details
Mediterranean and Baltic are the principal avenues of the ghetto. Dogs are everywhere. A pack of seven passes me. Block after block, there are three-story brick houses. Whole segments of them are abandoned, a thousand broken windows. Some parts are intact, occupied. A mattress lies in the street, soaking in a pool of water. Wet stuffing is coming out of the mattress. A postman is having a rye and a beer in the Plantation Bar at nine-fifteen in the morning. I ask him idly if he knows where Marvin Gardens is. He does not.
—from “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” by John McPhee
Short, straightforward sentences
Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning, and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but—and here is the absolutely salient point—once would be enough.
—from A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
Reporting brutal information in a factual tone
One of the facts withheld from civilians during World War II was that Kabar fighting knives, with seven-inch blades honed to such precision that you could shave with them, were issued to Marines and that we were taught to use them. You never cut downward. You drove the point of your blade into a man’s lower belly and ripped upward. In the process, you yourself became soaked in the other man’s gore.
—from “Okinawa: The Bloodiest Battle of All,” by William Manchester
Adding detail at the end of a sentence
There was a long period of time, almost a year, during which I never looked in a mirror. It wasn’t easy, for I’d never suspected just how omnipresent are our own images. I began by merely avoiding mirrors, but by the end of the year I found myself with an acute knowledge of the reflected image, its numerous tricks and wiles, how it can spring up at any moment: a glass tabletop, a well-polished door handle, a darkened window, a pair of sunglasses, a restaurant’s otherwise magnificent brass-plated coffee machine sitting innocently by the cash register.
—from “Mirrorings,” by Lucy Grealy
[Once you learn the reason why Grealy was avoiding mirrors—her jaw was disfigured by cancer—these details become meaningful and poignant.]
Delivering information in a long, complex sentence
Although Muhammad Ali is now fifty-four and has been retired from boxing for more than fifteen years, he is still one of the most famous men in the world, being identifiable throughout five continents; and as he walks through the lobby of the Hotel Nacional toward the bus, wearing a gray sharkskin suit and a white cotton shirt buttoned at the neck without a tie, several guests approach him and request his autograph. It takes him about thirty seconds to write “Muhammad Ali,” so shaky are his hands from the effects of Parkinson’s syndrome; and though he walks without support, his movements are quite slow…
—from “Ali in Havana,” by Gay Talese
[The long opening sentence tells a great deal about the man and this particular moment. The second sentence delivers a keen irony: the legendary athlete, famous for his strength and skill, has been reduced to weakness by age and disease.]
Moving from facts to interpretation
When Emmett Till was lynched in 1955, Mamie Till Bradley refused to hide her son’s corpse. His mutilated and decomposed body was found in the Tallahatchie River three days after he died. Despite the sheriff’s opposition, she insisted that her son be returned to Chicago. Bradley opened the casket as soon as it arrived at Illinois Central Terminal and promptly announced that she wanted an open-casket funeral so everyone could “see what they did to my boy.” On the first day the casket was open for viewing, ten thousand people saw it; on the day of the funeral, at least two thousand mourners stood outside the packed church where the services were held. The body of Emmett Till… became a new kind of icon. Emmett Till showed the world exactly what white supremacy looked like.
—from “Exquisite Corpse,” by Ashraf Rushdy
[This passage refers to one of the most horrific moments in American history. The final sentence leaps from fact to interpretation, powerfully.]