36

Something that always bothers me in my writing is how often I start sentences with the word "the".

A terrible nonsensical example:

The dog ran through the rain-swept streets, chasing a ball he thought he'd lost. The ball was just ahead of him, always out of reach. The ball was a dull red colour, difficult to see through the rain. The dog was gaining on it, slowly but surely.

Note: this isn't an extract of something I've written but a quick sample to demonstrate the problem. Answers that only deal with restructuring this particular paragraph are not useful.

I'm not concerned with the quality of my writing overall. I know that's something that will improve with time and practice. This also isn't about overuse of "the" in general, which would be a duplicate of this question.

What techniques can I use to prevent myself from starting sentences with "the"?

  • Additionally to other answers and comments, "This". "This ball was always always out of reach. Also, use commas, "This ball was always out of reach, and red, difficult to see through the rain..." – takintoolong Jan 30 at 3:49
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    @takintoolong Trying to avoid using commas and run-on sentences is how I got this problem. Also that seems like an answer in the commments which is something we should avoid. Make it an answer instead. – linksassin Jan 30 at 3:53
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    Was the rain also red? – Strawberry Jan 30 at 11:07
  • @linksassin I would highlight that commas are not things to be avoided; but also not things to be abused. To take a famous example "Eats shoots and leaves" vs "Eats, shoots and leaves" actually have different meanings based on the comma. You should not only practice not using it, but using it correctly – UKMonkey Jan 31 at 13:21
  • I assume the rain, like the ball, way gray. – ale10ander Jan 31 at 18:13
69
  1. Start with a word ending in 'ing'. e.g. Opening the door, he stepped into the dark. Chasing a ball he thought he'd lost, the dog ran through the rain-swept streets.

  2. Start with a preposition (so a prepositional phrase). e.g. At the time of the incident she was in London. Through the rain the ball was difficult to see.

  3. Start with an adverb. e.g. Yesterday, the murderer felt guilt. Slowly but surely the dog was gaining on it.

  4. Begin with a subordinating conjunction (so a subordinate clause). e.g. Although he was starving, the man refused to eat. Because it was raining, the dog got wet.

  5. Write a passive sentence i.e. object + verb. e.g. All the chocolates were eaten.

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    Surely also: start with a pronoun? The second uses of "the ball" in the passage in the question could be replaced with "it" and "he". – Mark Amery Jan 29 at 15:58
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    @Shufflepants Yesterday is a noun in sentences like "Yesterday was Monday," but an adverb in sentences like "I went to the store yesterday." I don't know whether it's considered authoritative here, but see the entry on Wiktionary. – Joshua Taylor Jan 29 at 23:45
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    @jpmc26 It's personification of an abstract noun. – S. Mitchell Jan 31 at 10:05
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    Surely also: give a name to the dog: Laïka was running after the ball. – Evargalo Feb 1 at 11:09
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    but beware of using too many adverbs : ) – sesquipedalias Apr 18 at 9:27
18

I suggest you continue to write however the words come out. Because the last thing you want to do is feel like you can't write unless it's perfect (or better).

Every day, go through a paragraph or two of your work and use S. Mitchell's excellent suggestions to revise it.

As time goes on, your revisions will be quicker because—in addition to being better at revising—you'll find that some of the work won't need revisions. You'll start to rethink sentence structure automatically.

You'll still have to revise your work; we all do! But, with more time and practice, this is another way that your writing will improve.

  • 3
    As good advice as this is, there's also something to be said about actively reaching out to see what you could be doing differently. Improvement via repetition can only get you so far if you don't know what it is you need to be practicing, and doing the same thing over and over again is only going to help you learn how to do that one thing. – Abion47 Jan 29 at 16:28
9

I think you are a non-native speaker (just like me), and you are using the thought patterns the grammar of your mother language to write in English. One thing that will help a lot is to read a lot. I took a two-month hiatus in my writing to read a ton of other novels in the same genre to pick up on how to make my writing feel more natural.

You can count on the reader's intellect to keep the phrases together as they infer their meaning. Your quote:

The dog ran through the rain-swept streets, chasing a ball he thought he'd lost. The ball was just ahead of him, always out of reach. The ball was red, difficult to see through the rain. The dog was gaining on it, slowly but surely.

Could convey the same meaning:

Chasing a ball he thought lost, the dog ran through the rain-swept streets. It was just ahead of him but always out of reach, its red form blurred by the rain. But he was slowly and surely gaining on it.

We identify the dog by 'he' in the first sentence, so when we say 'it' later, it refers to the ball. This way we avoid the second the. I moved the context of the scene and the conflict up front to make the reader position themselves before the protagonist is revealed, almost avoiding the first the. Joining the third sentence into the second and adding some flow into the fourth statement and there goes all the 'the' at the beginnings.

The third sentence is also a little case of show vs tell. We are already talking about the ball, and we can assume the rain is heavy (it is sweeping the streets) and we know it is hard to see things in heavy rain. Therefore we can surmise the color of the ball and the visibility issue with fewer words.

  • Actually I'm australian and english is my first language. This is something I can work at on my own I was just wondering if there was a clever one line solution to a problem that happens anytime my writing gets lazy. – linksassin Jan 29 at 22:29
  • I would describe your revision as making the sentences denser, packing more information into fewer words. Densifying is a fantastic strategy when your writing feels choppy like the example text. +1 – jpmc26 Jan 30 at 23:25
2

I would suggest reading more English poetry to pick up some techniques. Remember that the or the dog are words to highlight a specific thing, and that much of the time you can use sentence structure or the reader's imagination to know what you're referring to without having to be specific.

Chasing through the rain-swept streets ran the dog. He thought he'd lost it, but now the ball was just ahead of him, always out of reach. Rain clouded the streets, so he could barely see. Slowly but surely he was gaining on it,

Or even

dog through the rain-swept streets
lost ball chasing, always just ahead
always out of reach.

red hard to see through the rain.
fast sprinting gaining slowly
but surely soon in mouth.

Ovbiously there are limits to this unless you're James Joyce, but English is a very flexible language in sentence structure.

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    How do I apply poetry techniques to regular prose? I'm not a big poetry fan usually but if there a specific things I can learn from it I'm willing to try. – linksassin Jan 30 at 2:10
2

In addition to the excellent answers above, after you've completed a large chunk or the entire draft, use a grammar checker like grammarly or prowritingaid which check for repetition.

I use adverbs to start sentences a lot, and using the grammar checker showed me how many and where and I was able to use the techniques others mentioned to fix it. They also give suggestions of their own.

After doing this a few times, it starts to become more natural when writing drafts to start sentences in varied ways.

  • This is really useful. I wasn't aware that there were tools that would pick up this sort of thing. I thought they only check for grammar. Are these tools free? – linksassin Jan 30 at 2:12
  • grammerly.com can be used for free with limited amounts of text. IIRC both can be paid for on an "as use" basis for a small amount. I bought a "forever" type license for prowritingaid that was around $140. – poeticvampire Jan 30 at 16:46
2

Adding to the collection of amazing answers already written here, I would advise you to restructure your sentences to express a more personal view after you have already written them. This method can work in any of your sentences. Let's take the first sentence in your paragraph as an example. You can do this with any other sentence:

The dog ran through the rain-swept streets, chasing a ball he thought he'd lost.

Instead of this 3rd person view, you can "come closer".

Droplets of rain dotted the heavy-breathing dog's fur as he chased the ball he thought he'd lost.

This way, you make it more personal with the dog. you make it easier to picture in your reader's mind and you also get rid of the "the" ;)

I love doing this with my writing. I always try to understand how to make it more personal.

1

Some words, including "the" and "I" are so ubiquitous they become invisible, which means frequent use is not a problem.

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    No, they're definitely part of the reason the example text feels choppy. – jpmc26 Jan 30 at 23:28
-4

Just remove all the.

The articles are most useless feature of the language.

For example:

Articles are most useless feature of language.

This sentence has the same sense.

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    Is this actually a serious answer? Without additional changes, all that would do is make it look like they haven't quite mastered English. – John Montgomery Jan 29 at 20:04
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    Applying this advice to your own answer, "Articles are most useless feature of language" is not proper English, right? – Galastel Jan 29 at 20:09
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    You're missing the point - the sentence may be understandable without articles, but it isn't correct. Removing them without adjusting the sentence structure to compensate is objectively wrong unless you're deliberately going for a nonstandard syntax. – John Montgomery Jan 29 at 22:06
  • The point of editing the text in the first place is that the current form feels choppy, which steals the reader's focus and annoys them. Writing in your own version of English would also do that, so it's not a solution to the underlying problem. – JiK Jan 31 at 13:51
  • @JiK, but it will be your style and can be easily recognized by readers. And for writer it's important to have his own style. – Alexan Jan 31 at 14:18

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