What Is a Sentence Anyway?

One of my favorite books about writing is Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Tufte surveys the many forms that sentences can take and illustrates all those possibilities with choice examples. The book itself is a testament to the flexibility of what we call sentences.

But let’s step back. What is a sentence? What does it mean that series of words can be arranged in so many various ways and all of them be called sentences? Tufte’s book implies something that Jan Mieszkowski’s Crises of the Sentence makes explicit: There are so many different ways of writing sentences, so what are we talking about when we talk about sentences?

I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you before, and I still can’t tell you after having read Crises of the Sentence. But I have a much better grasp of what it means to ask the question.

Mieszkowski does a brilliant job of sketching the pragmatic and philosophic issues at stake. In effect, he says that if we’re to take the question seriously, here are the very real ramifications for our political and social realities.

Maybe I loved reading this book because I’m a writer for whom the sentence was already an unsettled, unstable yet extraordinarily resilient ‘unit’ of communication.

I use quotes around ‘unit’ because Mieszkowski has convinced me that a trouble with sentences is how we think of them in the first place. Unit-as-a-concept doesn’t describe sentences enough. They’re more than that, but it’s hard to say precisely what we could mean by more.

Imprecisely, it could mean that a sentence is what it is and everything that it could have been. In other words, the sentence you’re reading right now could have been written differently. The same words could have been arranged in different order. Or I could have chosen different words altogether in my attempt to impart the same information.

(I wrote ‘communicate the same information,’ then changed it. I’m not sure why. It’s either because ‘impart’ is fewer syllables or because I wanted to sound smarter or both).

Every sentence that I could have written exists as an unrealized possibility. Mieszkowski says this is a key reason why sentences should be taken seriously:

“Etymologically a verdict or judgement, a sentence invariably presents itself as complete, but it is never reducible to a mere equation or definition. Far from a docile medium for a content that is indifferently related to it, a sentence is both creative and destructive in its own right. We want our sentences to have an air of consequentiality, and we aspire to finish each and every one of them with a flourish. Sentences are powerful, however, because they are by nature sites of ongoing reflection and analysis and are thus permanently marked by an air of the provisional. As definitive as it may claim to be, a sentence cannot help but confirm that there is more to say or do, if only about the way in which it is saying and doing things.” (241)

The conflation of sentences and absolute claims comes under particular scrutiny. In the chapter “Slogans and One-Liners,” Mieszkowski examines the relationship of sentences to propositional logic. It’s a complicated relationship, overtly manifest in the form of slogans and one-liners. His analysis centers on revolutionary political slogans, but I think his insights apply to my peers in the marketing profession as well:

“… every sentence is partisan because it has an inherent tendency – call it aphoristic or sloganistic – to assert its independence from any and every other linguistic formation. At the same time, every rallying cry is its own worst enemy, inevitably prompting the question of whether it offers a reduced or debased version of an idea or argument” (83)

Perhaps more than other mode, it is poetry that calls into question the stability of a unit called ‘sentence.’ Mieszkowski expresses as much in a chapter called “The Poetic Line.” He says:

“Poetry tests the authority of the sentence in unique ways By foregrounding rhythms and other cyclical or repetitive patterns that are less obvious in – although by no means absent from – prose, it highlights organizational parameters that coexist or may even be at odds with syntactic ones.” (84)

What follows is a discerning look at how sentences figure in the poetics of two canonical poets – Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Readers who aren’t familiar with these poets will be surprised (and enlightened) by the number of drafts and revisions each poet made to their work. 

Lines are revised. Lines are lifted wholesale from one section and stuck in another. Lines (and sentences) are malleable, open to revision, easily rearranged if the mood strikes. It’s a lesson all writers should take to heart.

There’s more: A discussion of Flaubert. Other writers make appearances: Hemingway, Stein, Woolf. There’s an especially insightful compare-contrast between Stephen Pinker’ and Eric Hayot’s views on writing style. 

If you’re interested in the intersection of writing, language and philosophy, then I highly recommend this book. MW