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I always find myself wondering whether to add add "variation" or "symmetry" to a sentence. Most of the time I can't make out my mind.

Few examples:

With the moon still illuminating my way, I entered the trail, which consisted of a narrow concrete path surrounded by bamboo and banana plants.

Meaning aside, does it sound better if I balance the two words between "and"? By making them both adj + noun?

With the moon still illuminating my way, I entered the trail, which consisted of a narrow concrete path surrounded by tall bamboo and banana plants.


Yet there were things she had never seen before like three-wheeled bikes and elephants.

Does it sound better as:

Yet there were things she had never seen before like three-wheeled bikes and Asian elephants.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Factors you're playing with. First I'll call out a number of factors that you're playing with in addition to variety and symmetry:

  • Rhythm. Adding or omitting "tall" in the first example shifts the rhythm of the sentence.
  • Sonority (lyrically?). Adding or omitting "Asian" in your second example changes the way the sentence flows off the tongue. It feels like of slurry to me. Something about all of the a's and n's in a row.
  • Precision. Each time you add a modifier, you make the image more precise. But it may also make a construction more ambiguous. Does "tall" modify banana plants, or only bamboo?
  • Wordiness. Each time you add a modifier, you make the sentence wordier.

Additional factors to play with. A few other factors that remain the same throughout your examples, but which you can also play with:

  • Word choice. A modifier+noun pair compared with a more precise noun.
  • Word order. If you shift "tall bamboo" to the end, it's clear that "tall" modifies only bamboo.
  • What goes at the end of a sentence. I noticed that both of your examples are at the ends of sentences. The end of a sentence is a special place. That's a great place to put new or surprising or powerful ideas.
  • List rhythm and ordering. It is often easier for readers to parse a list if the shorter items appear toward the beginning of the list, and the longer items appear toward the end. Consider "elephants and three-wheeled bikes." (I like elephants at the end here. For me, the surprise of elephants outweighs the length thing.)
  • Sentence and paragraph construction. Left as an exercise for the reader.

These factors all bump into each other, contradict each other, support each other. Fiddling with one also affects the others.

Voice is kinda the sum of your choices about these things. The way you choose becomes your unique voice.

As others have mentioned, this is a matter of taste. Your question tells me that you care about this, and that the distinctions you're struggling with are subtle and interesting.

I'm confident that you'll do just fine, whatever you choose.

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This is a matter of style. If you can find a noun that evokes a precise image without using an adjective, so much the better. For example, a tricycle is a "three-wheeled bike" and so it is a noun that contains its own descriptor.

As for the first example, my impression is that you didn't think too much about the beginning, which needs work, and are saving all your worry for what amounts to a false dilemma at the end. I would suggest you don't let yourself get locked into one way of thinking about a scene. Try alternate ways of being evocative. You may be struggling with the last part of the sentence because it's the first part that isn't carrying enough freight. Consider:

The moonlight carved a narrow canyon between cliffs of bamboo and banana, its walls closing in from both sides as I pushed my way along the trail.

There are of course many different ways to set this scene. But this one makes the moonlight the agent of a claustrophobic, faintly menacing presence. Cliffs are tall, so you don't have to use that adjective to describe the plants. Darkness, tallness, narrowness — all are present, but the experience of them comes alive in a way they do not when you merely trot out a string of facts. It is the age-old difference between showing and telling.

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The difference is whether there is a notable difference.

When you say elephant, I think of the big gray ones, but an Asian elephant is smaller and has shorter tusks. Now that makes a considerable difference to the story, in terms of the readers' visualization of the scene.

But the tall bamboos is merely a descriptor. Bamboo is naturally tall, so it doesn't really make a huge difference if you specify the adjective.

But I would say that its largely a matter of creative writing style, with a few differences based on where adjectives are actually part of a Proper noun.

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