Good sentences are why we read | Daily News

Good sentences are why we read

No one can agree on what a sentence is. The safest definition is typographic. A sentence starts with a capital letter and ends with a full stop—except that some start with quote marks, and some end with question or exclamation marks, so that doesn’t quite work. Let’s try again. A sentence is the largest domain over which the rules of grammar have dominion. Thus it stands grammatically apart from the sentences around it. Except when it is a fragment that hangs over from the last sentence as an afterthought. Or that briefly sets a scene, like every sentence of the shipping forecast. Occasional gales. Fog patches. Mainly moderate.

A sentence is a small, sealed vessel for holding meaning. It delivers some news—an assertion, command or question—about the world. Every sentence needs a subject, which is a noun or noun phrase, and a predicate, which is just the bit of the sentence that isn’t the subject and that must have a main verb.

The subject is usually (but not always) what the sentence is about and the predicate is usually (but not always) what happens to the subject or what it is. This [subject] is a sentence [predicate]. A sentence must have a subject and a main verb, except when it leaves out one or both of them because their presence is implied. OK?

Comic sensibility

A sentence can be a single word, or it can stretch into infinity, because more words can be piled on to a main clause for ever. The Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal wrote a whole novel (Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age) containing just one sentence. But he said that his comic sensibility was shaped by a short one he once read on a dry cleaner’s receipt: Some stains can be removed only by the destruction of the material itself.

Marcel Proust, who in The Captive wrote a 447-word sentence about a sofa, said that he wanted to “weave these long silks as I spin them” and to “encircle the truth with a single—even if long and sinuous—stroke.” For Proust, a sentence traced an unbroken line of thought. Cutting it in two broke the line. Depending on its line of thought, a sentence can be a tiny shard of sense or a Proustian demi-world, brought to life and lit up with words.

For Henry David Thoreau, the sentence was the harvest gleaned in a writer’s brain. “The fruit a thinker bears is sentences,” he wrote in his journal. For Marianne Moore, the sentence exerted a pull on her “as the pull of a fabric is governed by gravity.” For James Baldwin, the one true goal was “to write a sentence as clean as a bone.” For John Cheever, “every sentence is an innovation,” something never thought, never mind said, in quite that way before. For Annie Dillard, the sentence is a writer’s true medium, and a writer with no feel for the sentence is not a writer, because that would be like being a painter who could not bear the smell of paint.

For Gary Lutz, the sentence is our “one true theater of endeavor.” For Maggie Nelson, the sentence is something to “labor grimly on . . . wondering all the while if prose is but the gravestone marking the forsaking of wildness.” For John Banville, the sentence is “this essential piece of our humanness . . . our greatest invention.”

Granular element

What special terroir makes a piece of writing irreplicable? Its sentences.

Skilled writers write in sentences—not because sentences are what we all write in (although they are), but because they write small. They see the sentence as the ur-unit, the granular element that must be got right or nothing will be right. Their books, however long they become, are gatherings of sentences. - Lit Hub


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