12:00 AM, January 19, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:06 AM, January 19, 2019


Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a new occasional column on the craft of writing.

The Art of the Sentence

Sentences are the workhorse of writing—so much so that we forget that they do more than just say something. Of course, a sentence communicates some sort of meaning, but how it says is as important as what it says.

In his classic On Writing Well, William Zinsser offers this elegant sentence from Thomas Paine: “These are the times that try men's souls.” He shows how rewriting it in any other way totally ruins it: (1) Times like these try men's souls. (2) How trying it is to live in these times! (3) These are trying times for men's souls. (4) Soulwise, these are trying times.“Paine's phrase is like poetry and the other four are like oatmeal,” Zinsser writes. And yet, these other sentences express the same meaning, don't they? Why aren't they just as good?

Sometimes, it's a matter of diction, such as the flippant “Soulwise” in #4. Speaking of trials of the soul in a lighthearted way means that the sentence lacks credibility; it loses the reader's trust. In #2, it's the exclamatory phrasing, with its excess of emotion, that makes the statement sound insincere. The first and third ones are better, but #1 is studded with heavy stresses in a way that makes the sentence rhythmically awkward (yes, prose has rhythm too—more on that below). Of the four, #3 is probably the best.

Let's go back to Paine's original phrasing: “These are the times that try men's souls.” The elegance of a sentence has to do with not just phrasing and syntax, but also things like rhythm and cadence. “These are the times” issues like a sigh of resignation, its heaviness reinforced by the grammatical pause at the syntactic juncture: “These are the times [pause] that try men's souls.”The speaker has to make some effort to re-initiate the speech-stream in order to continue the utterance. In terms of rhythm, the sentence is pleasing because of its disposition of syllables in terms of duration (long vs. short) and stress (light vs. heavy). As it happens, the heavy stresses coincide with and draw out the long vowels (“These are the times that try men's souls”), the spiritual exhaustion of the speaker imprinted on the prose itself.

In other words, a sentence tells a story not just in the way it's put together, but in the way it unfolds, including how it moves through time: where it speeds up or slows down, or pauses, or rises or falls in pitch, and so on. A good sentence performs its own meaning in the way that it unfolds. Paine's sentence begins with a kind of stoic dignity, then pauses in resignation, then starts up again with some effort, and then finishes the thought with a kind of fortitude borne of suffering.


* * *

Most people who have read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (and even some who haven't) can recite from memory the novel's famous first line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is as fine a specimen of a sentence as Darcy a Regency gentleman. What makes it so memorable?

The sentence begins with the existential verb 'to be' confidently asserting a particular state of affairs. If someone says, “It is raining,” we'll probably believe them. Except that Austen isn't describing a phenomenon, but is about to make a proposition, an unproven claim. To reinforce the narrator's credibility, Austen continues: “It is a truth.” Okay, so she's just asserted the truth of what she knows is really a proposition, not a fact. So now she has to go even further: not just “It is a truth” but “It is a truth universally acknowledged.” The excessive earnestness alerts the reader that she's being facetious and exaggerating for comic effect.

And that's only the first part of the sentence! All that mock-serious framing was to introduce the tongue-in-cheek proposition (about rich bachelors surely needing wives) in the subordinate clause. The latter hinges on the modal verb 'must,' which is often used to express an obligation (“You must visit”) or a deduction or conclusion (“She looks so young—she must be a teenager”). The subject of the clause is a rich bachelor, the parallelism of “a single man” and “a good fortune” suggesting that ideally these two things go hand in hand. The “must” here expresses both obligation and conclusion: he “must be in want of a wife.” Of course, “to want” means 'to desire,' but it also means 'to lack.' What the Regency bachelor supposedly desires and lacks is “a wife,” which is both the grammatical object of the clause as well as the object of desire, and its appearance is delayed until the very end of the sentence. Just as the bachelor desires matrimonial resolution, the reader desires narrative resolution, and must wait till the end of the novel for the happy union to take place. In other words, Austen's opening sentence is a little allegory for the way the narrative itself will unfold: there exists a particular state of affairs, there's something that needs fulfillment, and here's how it can be fulfilled. Now read on to find out how it happens. That's the first sentence—it's job is to hook the reader, and it does exactly that. Incredible, isn't it?

* * *

So, what does a sentence communicate, beyond the obvious and manifest? What meaning does it perform in its own unfolding, through its rhythmic and syntactic organization? Let's look at another famous opening sentence, this time from Douglas Adams's cult classic The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun.” The sun around which our solar system revolves is obviously of supreme importance to us, since life depends on it. But Adams irreverently unseats the sun from its place of honor: it is unremarkable and located in the middle of nowhere. How does the sentence perform this act of decentering and marginalizing the sun?

First, the normal and expected subject-predicate order is inverted, so that the subject (the sun) is dethroned from the head of the sentence and relegated to the very end. Secondly, the sentence piles up the locatives, the unspooling prepositional phrases taking us further and further out into space: “[Far out][in the uncharted backwaters][of the unfashionable end][of the western spiral arm][of the Galaxy].” The job of these locatives is to orient us in space, but the way the sentence unfolds makes us feel disoriented and decentered by the time we reach the titular galaxy at the center. The sentence unfolds thus: “Far out, in the [A] of the [B] of the [C] of the [D] lies the sun.” The sentence dislocates rather than locates, and it requires retracing our steps from D to C to B to A to figure out where the sun is. Even when we get to the long-delayed subject of the sentence, it's further displaced by the three adjectives that precede it: “a small, unregarded yellow sun.”

What I've been commenting on is how a sentence organizes and deploys information: not just what it tells us, but also how and when and why. A sentence, then, is a little world, a microcosm of the larger world we live in. A sentence organizes and arranges information—which is to say it organizes our experiences and perceptions of the world. In fact, the word 'sentence' comes from the Latin sentire, 'to feel, perceive, think'—which also gives us sense, sentiment, and sentience. In other words, a sentence is literally something felt or perceived or thought. What a sentence communicates is no less than our way of seeing and understanding the world, indeed our way of being in the world.


Nausheen Eusuf is a PhD candidate in English at Boston University. Her poetry has appeared in World Literature Today, Best American Poetry 2018, PN Review, and online at The London Magazine and The Guardian.

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