On the Craft of Sentencing | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 15, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 15, 2019

On the Craft of Sentencing

I teach English at a private university in Dhaka, Bangladesh, having attended universities on three continents. I’m persuaded to think as such that I know what a university is and does. I wish I did! Joe Moran in First You Write a Sentence claims, “A university is a factory where sentences are made.” Bingo! Skeptics might carp that Moran has lampooned the pursuits of a university. A composition professional–and that’s me–finds Moran relevant and revealing. The intellectual foundation of a university is laid on its syntactic slabs. A university consumes sentences; it constructs sentences; and it corresponds and connects with the rest of the world through sentences. It orients its associates toward sentences, and what comes along the way–information, ideas, and enlightenment–are the by-products of that orientation. (De)constructing sentences, then, constitutes the main mission of a university. That’s a tough mission. Sentencing is science wrapped in psychology. The rules of syntax are rigid and restrictive, but the lyric and logic these rules embody are not. Writing professionals explore the science and psychology of sentencing, and they have some observations which are worth remembering while sentencing.

Sentencing, for example, is no art. It’s a craft. We have options to avail and restrictions to remember as we sentence. In a sentence, a writer tells their readers who is doing what to whom, so readers do not struggle to separate the agent from the action. How does a writer do that? They follow a sentencing theory, which stipulates that an ideal sentence is end-weighted. The sematic weight of a sentence is placed at the end of the sentence, not at the beginning. They avoid participles, adjectives, and adverbs before the subject of a sentence. They begin a sentence straight from the subject. While this theory of sentencing emerges from North America, it’s not a North American stipulation. It was first proposed by the 4th century B.C. E. Sanskrit grammarian, Panini, who claims that ideally in a sentence the lighter follows what’s heavier. That weeds out the clutter of a sentence. A writer is left with the bare basics of a sentence: verb and noun. Referring to the recommendation by Strunk and White from their masterpiece, The Elements of Style, Zinsser claims in On Writing Well that an adjective is a candidate for a verbal liposuction. An adjective modifies a noun. If the noun is already strong in a sentence, it needs no modification. Likewise, an adverb adds to a verb. If a verb is strong, it needs no addition. Zinsser wants adjectives and adverbs abandoned in a sentence. Any academic writer should heed Zinsser. Academic prose is information dependent. Adjectives and adverbs are not information themselves. They modify information. They can easily be rendered redundant.

Some of the commonly used intensifiers (i.e., too, very, extremely, and really) in the English language are adverbs, too. These intensifiers are more colloquial than formal. They belie the tone and texture of academic discourse. These intensifiers make one’s prose flabby and subjective. They signal egocentric prose where a writer browbeats their readers to endorse their perspectives. An academic sentence is better off without these intensifiers. While composition professionals recommend ‘hedging’ (a technique to make sentences more logical and relative) to avoid absolute statements in academic discourse, Pinker in The Sense of Style claims that hedging makes academic prose impersonal and livid. By hedging, academics refuse to stand by what they claim. He theorizes the hedge-filled academic prose style as CYA (Cover Your Anatomy). His recommendation contra hedging is SSM (So Sue Me). Good writing is conviction clarified. If a writer’s conviction troubles others that perhaps is authentic writing as Scott Fitzgerald implies in his essay, “The Crack-Up,” that writers are troublemakers. Interestingly, some of the commonly used hedges such as generally, relatively, perhaps, somewhat, apparently, presumably, (and my hedge, commonly) are adverbs. They might be lopped off altogether in academic discourse.

Steven Pinker suggests in The Sense of Style that we should avoid “not” as we sentence. He claims that research in cognitive psychology informs that humans are credulous creatures, that they tend to believe. A negative sentence tells readers to disbelieve something, which goes against our brains’ default way of processing information. The human brain needs to free up more cognitive resources to make sentence of a negative sentence, causing difficulty in comprehension. He further claims that we can easily do away with “not” in a sentence in that every negative sentence is a carbon-image of an affirmative sentence. For example, the sentence, “He is not an honest man,” can be translated, “He is a dishonest man.” Besides in some words such as hardly, seldom, rarely, and scarcely, “not” is already tucked in. We can use these words instead of “not” to ease comprehension. Isn’t it a banal advice to make writing more fluid? It perhaps is, for how far can we go without using “not” in our real life? Not that far! Avoiding “not,” however, contributes to the ease and economy of writing.

The rules of sentencing are not constant across genres. Prose in academic genre is reader-based. Writers must not expect their readers to read between the lines, for there’s no line between the lines. It’s all flatly stated. It’s lean and direct as well as linear and top-down. Academic prose is meant to be consumed by a specific discourse community with its idiosyncratic perceptions of sentencing. Creative genre, on the other hand, is writer-based. A writer is free to write her prose her way; she sets her own constraints and parameters of writing; and she should not have to customize her prose to the expectations of an audience. The prose is layered and subtle as well as indirect and philosophical. Languaging and thinking are different across these genres, as is sentencing. Good sentencing in one genre is iffy in another. For example, a composition professional would like to tinker with the preceding sentence because of verb “to-be.” Is is the problem here. Academic writing scholar Helen Sword claims in Stylish Academic Writingthat any verb “to -be” is a spineless verb. It’s a syntactic necessity. It’s semantically empty. It fuzzes up prose without conveying any content. Strong sentencing warrants a strong verb, and verb “to-be” falls short on that front.

Mere sentencing, however, doesn’t prove or disprove anything about writing. Writing is not sentencing; writing, instead, is joining bits of information, ideas, and arguments in relationships that never existed that way until a writer transcribed it. Unwieldy sentences don’t always compromise the quality of writing. Homi Bhabha, for example, flouts the science and psychology of sentencing in The Location of Culture. His sentences are knotty and tedious; he has nominalized almost every verb; and the prosody in his prose is sparse and arbitrary. His thoughts dance and dazzle despite his ungainly prose. The problem with writing is a problem with thinking, not sentencing. Good sentencing makes writing transparent. But what separates sprightly prose from mush are critical intelligence (i.e., logic), factual diligence (i.e., authentic information), and semantics sophistication (i.e., appropriate register). Sentencing can’t address these dimensions of writing; apparently, though, writing is nothing but.

And why should a writer care about sentencing in the first place? Because they want their writing to be comprehensible. That’s almost always unlikely. Writing presupposes reading, but reading and writing are two different modes of communication. They bleed into one another, but they never mesh. Reading is translation, writing is transcription. Steven Pinker in The Sense of Style claims that the way thoughts occur to a reader is not the same they occur to a writer. Something always falls between the cracks. Add to that that humans are not generically primed to write. Speaking is an accident with the origin of our species. Writing isn’t. Written word is a new invention, so new that it has left no trace in our genome yet. To make sense of writing, we utilize the same cognitive resources that we have at our disposal as speakers. We end up comprehending partially in that writing is not speech, per se. Writing is a systematic selection and organization of speech. Sentencing in speech and writing is different. Writing is reflective and recursive. Speech isn’t. Writing transpires through a process of trial and error. Speech is instant and unbidden. Because of these irreducible differences between speech and writing, there’s no such thing as ideal sentencing to make writing fully comprehensible. A possessed writer sentences without caring much of their reader’s comprehension. They don’t write to be understood. They write to understand.

Therefore, an informed approach to sentencing should be making sense of one’s own world in one’s own way. A writer should sentence to show their unique passion and panache, to embody her voice and verve, and to disrupt the mores and myths of sentencing. Likely that readers won’t like it. More likely is that none would ever read it. Then why should they deprive themselves of the joy of banging out those awe-inspiring sentences lying fallow in the subconscious somewhere in her? They must not act as a week-kneed appeaser. If their sentences are formulaic, their prose is flaccid. It neither educates, nor entertains. So, what makes them an author(ity)? They must learn to bend or break the craft of sentencing as needed. When that happens, they shouldn’t have to worry about sentencing. The golden rule is: a sentence should be a labor to write, but a breeze to read!

Mohammad Shamsuzzaman is an Assistant Professor, Department of English and Modern Languages, North South University, Bangladesh.

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