In theory, the reason we're doing sentence combining exercises is that the research on sentence combining is positive, which is what I told my class. However, I have not actually read any of this research myself, so the real reason(s) we are doing sentence combining exercises are:
a) Arthur Whimbey recommended doing them
b) Robert Connors thought sentence combining was a good idea
c) a commenter here at ktm once reported that Morningside Academy uses sentence combining, which indeed appears to be the case. (I love ktm commenters.)
Still, although my faith in these sources is high, and although the notion of giving students practice combining sentences makes a kind of gut-level sense to me, I have the same question my student had, only I phrase it a bit differently.
My question is: What is it about writing, anyway?
Why is it so hard?
And why is talking so easy?
Talking is easy, writing is hard ---- Why?
I've been mulling this over for at least a year now, and today I'm thinking one of the main reasons writing is hard is that writing IS sentence combining. Sentence combining isn't just an exercise designed to help students learn to write; sentence combining is writing. It's what writers do.
Of course, people combine sentences all the time when they talk. It's perfectly natural and normal (and easy) for a person to say "I went home because I felt sick," which is a combination of the sentences "I went home" and "I felt sick."
It's perfectly natural and normal for a writer to write "I went home because I felt sick," too. However, arguably it is just as natural and normal for a writer to write, "Because I felt sick, I went home," whereas I have never heard a person actually say, out loud, "Because I felt sick, I went home" or its syntactic equivalent.
And I have certainly never heard a person say, out loud, anything on the order of "Weeping, shuddering, he sat on the edge of the bed." (Lois Lowry, The Giver)
Nobody talks that way, but everybody writes that way (everybody who knows how to write, that is). I don't know what writers do, exactly, that makes writing so different from speaking, but we do seem to move "sentence constituents" around a whole lot more than talkers do.
Which brings me back to my students. I can't remember whether I've talked about this before, but one of the issues you see in freshman writing is something I call "jumbled sentences." When I first encountered jumbled sentences, I didn't know what to make of them; they are so strange to me that I can't (yet) imitate them myself. I can't imitate them because I don't understand how they're put together.
I'll try to come up with some examples I can disguise well enough to post.
update: Here's one.
My impression is that often these sentences start out fine, but then the wheels come off somewhere along the line.
I'm thinking perhaps novice writers produce jumbled sentences because they're trying to combine lots of short, declarative sentences (or short declarative thoughts, more likely) into much longer constructions -- which is exactly the right impulse -- but they've had so little practice writing (and reading) complicated sentences that they lose control after the first clause or so.
But I don't know.
Here is Jim Miller on talking versus writing:
Many kinds of spoken language, not just the spontaneous speech of domestic conversation or discussions in pubs, have a syntax that is very different from the syntax of formal writing. It is essential to understand that the differences exist not because spoken language is a degradation of written language but because any written language, whether English or Chinese, results from centuries of development and elaboration by a small number of users – clerics, administrators, lawyers and literary people. The process involves the development of complex syntactic constructions and complex vocabulary. In spite of the huge prestige enjoyed by written language in any literate society, spoken language is primary in several major respects. There are, or were until recently, societies with a spoken language but no written language, but no societies with only a written language; children usually learn to speak long before they learn to read and write; and the vast majority of human beings use speech far more often than writing.
The syntax of spontaneous spoken language has been ‘designed’ or ‘developed’ to suit the conditions of speech – little planning time, the possibility of transmitting information by loudness, pitch and general voice quality, and support from hand gestures, facial expressions and so on (what is known as ‘non-verbal communication’). For a particular language, the syntax of spontaneous speech overlaps with the syntax of formal writing; there is a common core of constructions. For instance, "The instructions are useless" could be spoken or written. However, many constructions occur in speech but not in writing, and vice versa. "She doesn’t say much – knows a lot though" is typical of speech, but typical of writing is "Although she does not say much, she knows a lot."
The special syntax of spontaneous spoken language is not produced just by speakers with the minimum of formal education. One of the most detailed investigations of spoken syntax was carried out in Russia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The speakers recorded on tape in all sorts of informal situations were doctors, lawyers and academics, but their speech turned out to be very different in syntax from written Russian. Moreover, their syntax had general properties which have turned up in bodies of spontaneous spoken English, French and German.
This book deals with concepts suitable for the analysis of all types of language, from spontaneous unplanned conversation to planned and edited formal writing. The one exception is the unit that we call ‘sentence’. Attempts to apply this unit to spontaneous speech have not been successful; speakers disagree, sometimes spectacularly, on where sentences begin and end in recordings of spontaneous speech in their native language. The sentence appears to be a unit developed for formal writing. It is also appropriate for the analysis of planned speech where the syntax is that of writing.
People learn the syntax and vocabulary of formal writing from books and in school in a process that lasts into the early twenties for university graduates and can continue much longer. In general, the more exposure speakers have to formal schooling, the more easily and frequently they use in speech the syntax and vocabulary that are typical of formal writing.
Miller, Jim. An Introduction to English Syntax. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. xii-xiv. Print.