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Using English Sentences Effectively

(Teacher Joe originally wrote this article for College English Magazine in Beijing.)

What is "sentence building"? It's a kind of grammar exercise that can improve your English speaking dramatically, taking it up to a higher level. Most students learn basic sentence patterns, then rely on those in every situation. In order to improve, students need to move beyond simple patterns and start to create their own, new, more complex sentences. Let me show you how to begin.

Let's start with a simple sentence, such as "I study at Beihang University". Students can communicate more, and improve their speaking ability, by extending that sentence. Perhaps you could say, "I'm a third year student at Beihang University", or "I study Computer Science at Beihang University". Both of these sentences provide the listener with more information. Next, you can build a better sentence by combining these two, like this: "I'm a third-year Computer Science major at Beihang University", or "I'm a third-year student at Beihang University studying Computer Science".

Generally, there are five common ways we can build new and better sentences.

1. Adding specific details

2. Using expressions of time and place

3. Using noun phrases

4. Making comparisons

5. Outlining possibilities

We saw an example of adding specific details above. By adding the major and the year, we came up with a much more informative sentence. Students often rely on very general words such as "interesting", "beautiful", "good", "bad", etc. Instead, students should learn by thinking about ways to express HOW interesting something is or HOW beautiful. Instead of saying "The movie was interesting", we could say, "That was one of the most interesting movies I've ever seen", or "That was the best movie I've seen this year". In order to learn, I ask my students to go further, and try to add more to such a sentence. You could just add "because" at the end of the sentence. Another possibility is, "The story was so fascinating and the acting so good, that this was one of the best movies I've ever seen". To really stretch the exercise, you could say, "The story was so fascinating and the acting so good, that this was one of the best movies I've ever seen, which is why I recommend it to anyone who wants to have a really enjoyable time". Of course, we don't need to use such long sentences in normal conversations, but if you can say sentences like that smoothly, your every day conversation will improve tremendously.

The second way of building sentences is similar to the first. Two of the most important items we want to communicate in any conversation is "when" and "where", so we should practice adding this information to our sentences. One way to use that in a sentence is just to begin with "when". "When I first arrived at Beihang University to study Computer Science...". Another possibility is, "In 2002 when I first came to Beihang University, I decided to study Computer Science, which turned out to be a good decision because...". Or you could say, "During my first year at Beihang University, my decision to study Computer Science was...". Discussing the place could be done with words such as "in" or "at", for example, "In Beihang University, where I am a third-year student, the Computer Science department is...".

Another way of building sentences is to use noun phrases instead of simple nouns. Many students will say, "I like sports". Instead, they could begin with a noun phrase, for example, "Playing sports is..." and then add more. "Playing sports is something that always brings me a lot of enjoyment" or "Playing basketball makes me dream of being an NBA star, so I feel like a kid again". You can also talk about larger groups using noun phrases, for example, you can say, "People who play sports often usually have better health, which is one reason I play basketball as often as I can". When talking about things instead of people, we can use "that" instead of "who", for example, "Sports that require a lot of running help us stay healthy, which is why basketball is one of my favorite sports to play".

One final way to make better sentences is to think about comparisons. You can use words and expressions such as "although", "besides", "in spite of", "in addition to", "not only... but..." to introduce two items at once and show how they are related. Here are some examples. "Although I enjoy watching sports, playing is even more fun". "Besides playing sports such as basketball, volleyball, and tennis, I enjoy going to karaoke or dancing in my free time". "Not only do I play basketball with my friends, but I've joined a tennis club on the weekends to help me to stay in shape".

As you can see, there's no limit to the sentences we can make. When you speak, you can use simple sentences as long as they are appropriate. However for learning, try to make as many new and long sentences as you can. Students have studied a lot of grammar over the years. Now is the time to put it all to use. Good luck!

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