The Beauty of a Balanced Sentence

Vintage-Typewriter-4The brain loves it some mighty rhythms. You know when you’ve connected to a song, you can feel it. Your foot does its tap-tap, your heart thumps to that bass. You nod. You clap. The music is all around and in you.

What if you could achieve that same effect with your writing, without seeming forced? What if what the ear hears, the eye could be made to see? The mind can also snap quick to a beat; the eye can dance with a burst of melody on the page.

Advertisers know this. They have 15 seconds on TV to transfix you, nine on radio, and a fraction of one in print. Here’s a few sentences that stick in the brain:

  • Live in your world, play in ours. (Sony PlayStation)
  • If you’ve got the time, we’ve got the beer. (Miller)
  • What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

So, what’s so special? Don’t talk to me about word play. There’s not a pun or oxymoron or such thing in sight. The cleverness of these sentences relies on what we writing instructor types call balance. The boring-ass teacher in me wants to describe the balanced sentence as a construction whereby each half mirrors the other in length, grammar and importance.

Wake up!

Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

Here’s another way to put it (warning, math ahead):  1+1

That’s it. Just one phrase or clause, and another phrase or clause that’s pretty much its equal. They call to each other back and forth across that little comma (and there’s always a comma). Just make sure whatever you do grammatically on one side, you do on the other. Same verb tense, both sides. Singular or plural — pick one. And don’t mess with extra phrases on one side that aren’t on the other.

Benjamin Franklin does it right. He had to remind his revolutionary homeboys the British were pretty much always coming:

We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.
The “indeed” is matched by “most assuredly” — they’re called interrupters, if you care — and together add to our sense this guy knew what he was talking about. It exudes confidence and familiarity at the same time, without interrupting the all hang … all hang bits that create the actual balance.

You’ve seen this one, right? Tell me you’ve seen this one:

And so my fellow Americans—ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.  (John F. Kennedy, inaugural address, Jan. 1961)

Also a balanced sentence, and a damn fine one. Remember the rest of his speech? Neither do I.  What deserves to be remembered is wrapped in those two clauses that surprise the ear when spoken, forcing your brain to hush its busy self up. On paper, it’s a tiny burst of symphony that makes the eye stoked it stopped there, and the mind stows it instantly on its permanent playlist, ready for recall.

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