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Paragraph Structure, Part Two:
Sentence Variety—Nouns

by Nann Dunne

It's not my intention to explain the many parts of speech. That's been done with remarkably detailed attention at the URL mentioned at the end of this article. What I want to touch on often falls to a content editor—helping a writer enliven his or her manuscript by using the various parts of speech to structure memorable sentences. Today, we'll discuss nouns.

Use Specific Nouns. 
While you're writing, an important goal to keep in mind—almost to the point of becoming a mantra—is Be Specific! Lori L. Lake, in JAW's October 2003 article on "Intellectual Property and Its Uses" points out that trade names and copyrighted names can add to a scene by enabling the reader to relate to something familiar. She uses the example: "She buckled little Susie into her mother’s rattle-trap Ford Falcon and toodled over to McDonald's where she tanked up on a 32-ounce Diet Coke…" (I also like Lori’s verbs here. But that’s a later column…)

Being specific doesn't necessarily mean using well-known names. Choosing slightly-out-of-the-ordinary nouns can serve the purpose, and many can be found in a good thesaurus. Your word processor has one, though it’s somewhat limited. If you use Microsoft Word, type in a noun close in meaning to the one you want, put your cursor on it, and hit Shift-F7; or highlight the word and go to Tools, Language, Thesaurus. If the resulting choices don't fit the bill, continue to delve deeper by double-clicking the choices one by one. Not only will you find some good selections, you could be increasing your vocabulary too.

A vast online thesaurus is at Be sure to click on Thesaurus, though even Definition gives some useful alternatives. You might want to try both.

Let's use "head" as an example of the word you decide is too ordinary. returns the following choices for "head," when describing one's brain: attic, bean, belfry, biscuit, block, brain, coconut, cranium, crown, dome, dream box, gray matter, nob, noddle, noggin, noodle, nut, pate, poll, potato, pumpkin, scalp, skull, think tank, thinker, top story, upper story, upstairs, wig. The site also displays strings of alternatives for "head" when describing leadership, intelligence, beginning, climax, chief (adjective), or manage (verb), for a total of well over 150 different words.

You won't want to change every instance of "head" in your manuscript, but an occasional variation can add freshness and originality to your writing. One precaution: Be sure the noun you choose suits your story. You probably wouldn't write, "The bishop used his coconut to solve the mystery of the disappearing shoes," unless you were quoting—or writing as—a hard-boiled character like a detective. "Gray matter," however, might work well.

Choosing varied nouns also can solve the problem of an identical word falling in the same or an adjoining sentence. If you had just written, "After he spoke with the head of the school," you wouldn’t want to immediately say, "the bishop used his head to solve the mystery of the disappearing shoes." The first occurrence could be changed to principal, or the second to gray matter, but one or the other cries out to be changed. Many, many authors seem completely unaware of this situation and occasionally will use the same word three or four times in adjacent sentences. Too much repetition of the same word or words can deaden a scene or even become annoying to the reader.

As I wrote in an earlier column, it’s a good idea to make a list of the nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs you use on the first page or two of your manuscript. Not only will this show you whether the words need strengthened, but it will point out where you’ve used the same word too close to itself. Once you’re aware of these tendencies in your writing, you can consciously avoid them as you write, or you can skim passages later to discover similar problems. Remember not to overdo the word substitution though. Most "everyday" words don't need to be constantly changed—you're aiming to add only a peppering of variety.

Here’s that fantastic URL I mentioned above:
I suggest you go there and check out the site thoroughly. You can get a marvelous education in grammar, including quizzes to check your grasp of the information, and it's free!
© 2003, Nann Dunne
Excerpted from Nann Dunne's Fiction-Editing Handbook
(a work in progress)

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