THR Web Features   /   September 14, 2021

Field Notes of a Sentence Watcher

To the making of good sentences there is no end.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Oscar Wilde’s edits to The Picture of Dorian Gray; Scribd.)

The historian Joe Moran begins his 2018 style guide, First You Write a Sentence, by outlining a comic routine unfortunately familiar to many of us:

First I write a sentence. I get a tickle of an idea for how the words might come together, like an angler feeling a tug on the rod’s line. Then I sound out the sentence in my head. Then I tap it on my keyboard, trying to recall its shape. Then I look at it and say it aloud, to see if it sings. Then I tweak, rejig, shave off a syllable, swap a word for a phrase or phrase for a word. Then I sit it next to other sentences to see how it behaves in company. And then I delete it all and start again.

(This process has in fact already played out several times in the very piece that you are reading, albeit with one twist: rather than deleting the false starts, I have stowed them at the bottom of the page in hopes that they might be of use later on.) Moran goes on to point out that, aside from sleeping, writing sentences constitutes the biggest slice in the pie chart of his life. You can easily see why: On this account, “writing” a sentence is an evolutionary process in which generations of imperfectly adapted sentences arise, survive numerous trials, and settle into a potential habitat, only to die off again and again, sometimes dooming the entire ecosystem in the process, all in the service of formulating the fittest expression.

Moran’s pie chart might be somewhat skewed toward writing, yet, as he points out, he’s not alone in facing the daily chore of sentence-making: “We are all of us, of school age and older, in the sentences game.” Give it a moment’s thought, and you’ll see that he’s right: All of the professions are writing-intensive, and even those who don’t compose sentences for pay will nonetheless write scores of them every day thanks to the hegemony of texting, email, and social media over everyday life. Sentences are something that we all have in common; indeed, Moran memorably dubs sentences “our writing commons, the shared ground where every writer walks.” His description of the writing process, however, suggests that sentences are also our common agony. No one can escape the sentence.

For this reason, we turn to books like Moran’s, hoping to find foolproof directions for assembly. But as the author acknowledges, he can’t provide something so mechanical, reliable, repeatable. As his testimony above admits, crafting a sentence isn’t one problem but many. A sentence might sound promising in your head but crumble during its translation to the page. It might get maimed when shaved or become disfigured when tweaked, rejigged, or retrofitted. It might not be compatible with its neighbors. When it comes to actual advice, then, First You Write a Sentence and others of its ilk such as Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (2011) merely repeat what teachers of rhetoric have taught for two and a half millennia: Pick some good models to imitate and then practice making (and unmaking) sentences. In the background of such books, you can still hear the young Benjamin Franklin treating sentences from the Spectator-like Mad-Libs, snipping bits to see if, days later, he could fill in the blanks with his quill pen, and the teenage Joan Didion at her typewriter copying Hemingway’s stories word for word “to learn how the sentences worked.”

While these books may be offered as instruction manuals, they are best received as field guides. That is to say, such books are valuable because they help you to identify the characteristics of a successful sentence—just as one might note the plumage, whereabouts, and behavior of a Eurasian Bullfinch—when you come upon one in the wild. In fact, both Moran and Fish recognize the parallel, Fish writing, “Some people are bird watchers, others are celebrity watchers; still others are flora and fauna watchers. I belong to the tribe of sentence watchers.” And as all birding authorities will tell you, simply reading someone else’s field notes isn’t enough. By making your own, as explains, you “improve your birding skills because it helps direct your attention on what you are observing, moments after the observation.” The same is true of sentences: Transcribing an excellent one into a commonplace book (paper or digital) along with some notes on its surroundings and anatomy will sharpen your awareness of its virtues.

The Irish writer Brian Dillon’s much-praised essay collection published last year, Suppose a Sentence, is an exemplary exercise in this regard. Dillon presses no claims on behalf of his project’s utility (on that score, he recommends Moran, Fish, and Virginia Tufte’s 2006 taxonomy of sentence forms, Artful Sentences), presenting his book as a series of meditations on sentences with which he feels a certain “affinity.” All of his choices are technically intriguing (whether due to mastery or, in some cases, oddity), yet the book’s deeper motive is to convey the feelings that Dillon’s favorite sentences excite. As one reads, one grasps why ardent birders get out of bed at ungodly hours to trudge through the woods: to experience the thrill of discerning a beautiful shape tucked among the branches and leaves. The advantage in the sentence-watcher’s case is that one can enjoy a similar thrill without fussing with binoculars and insect repellant.

In this spirit, I offer four recent entries from my own sentence-watching notebook, the commentaries spruced up for your review. These sentences may be worthy of imitation, but that’s not today’s assignment. My primary purpose is to encourage appreciation by examining sentences that are successful in a variety of ways. Now, taking pleasure in a well-crafted sentence is a good in itself. Yet for me at least, there is a secondary benefit to the practice of sentence watching. It lies in remembering that all of the sentences that I collect have, along with their writers, undergone the ordeals of composition and editing narrated by Moran above. My field notes thereby offer evidence that the arduous work of writing a sentence sometimes does work out. These sentences are a reminder that if we keep at it long enough, we might just spin out a few good ones of our own, whether by design or accident.

“Visitors walk through a world of sunken roofs, rubble, peeling paint, weeds, and weed trees—the detritus of what had once been a dream of order.”

Jane Brox, Silence (2019)

Brox’s book presents a series of case studies on enforced and elected silences, and this sentence appears early on in the first one. The “world” she’s visiting is Eastern State Penitentiary, the physician and American co-founder Benjamin Rush’s embodied argument that silence and solitude could be more effective methods for reforming criminals than the day’s standard practices of beating and public humiliation. (Spoiler alert: The eventual inmates weren’t so sure about this.) But that background information still lies ahead. At this point, the reader has only seen the prison in its present decrepitude—in glaring contrast to the cleanly attired restaurants and upscale condos that Brox points out further up Philadelphia’s Fairmount Avenue.

Here the author marks the antithesis between the prison’s awkward afterlife and Rush’s orderly Enlightenment blueprint, producing a sentence with a proverbial air. While coming early in the reader’s experience, it almost certainly arrived late in the author’s. The phrase “dream of order” compresses the material related in subsequent chapters—about Rush, his models in England (including Bentham’s panopticon), the prison’s architect, John Haviland—into four memorable syllables. 

But the conceptual contrast between dream and decay isn’t all there is to this sentence. Look again at the sequence “sunken roofs, rubble, peeling paint, weeds, and weed trees,” and you’ll see that it is held together by a series of understated alliterations. The movement between the two halves of the sentence, moreover, is marked by a deliberate shift in register from the garden-variety Anglo-Saxon of “weed” and “weed trees” to the Latin borrowing “detritus” (meaning “wearing away”). The repetition of “weed” in “weed trees,” meanwhile, may seem lazy; it’s the sort of word choice that a creative writing handbook would probably counsel an author against in favor a more specific and descriptive word (which species was it?). But the choice seems to me to be true to the lived experience of passing through unloved ruins. I, for one, don’t stop to take notes on the leaf structure and bark texture of the scraggly things growing amidst the rubble; I glance and look for somewhere else to look.

“The cherry blossom that hangs in great clumps from the ends of knobbly, thin branches of the ancient tree is so heavy that the outer branches bend to touch the ground, like an old lady resting her feet on a footstool to take the weight off her legs.” 

Marc Hamer, Seed to Dust (2020)

In my first-year writing classes, students learn to keep the subjects of their sentences short. An enormous subject, the late Greg Colomb taught me, is often a separate sentence that has been smuggled in and is desperate to be freed. Rare is the reader who wants to traverse ten—much less nearly twenty, as in the present example)—words before discovering the nature of the verb.

So Hamer’s sentence would seem to provide a perfect occasion to apply the lesson. Following my rule of thumb, it would be split as follows: “The cherry blossom hangs in great clumps from the ends of knobbly, thin branches of the ancient tree. It is so heavy that the outer branches bend to touch the ground, like an old lady resting her feet on a footstool to take the weight off her legs.” Yet you can immediately see that the sentence suffers from the division. “It is so heavy” doesn’t express the oppressive weight of the cherry blossom like Hamer’s great clump of a subject, and the memorable simile of the old lady taking a load off her legs also loses some of its force when disentangled from the prodigal opening phrase. Too much in this case is just right.

“I succeeded in getting away without an additional blow, and barely so; for to strike a white man is death by Lynch law,—and that was the law in Mr. Gardner’s ship-yard; nor is there much of any other out of Mr. Gardner’s ship-yard.”

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845)

Douglass’s prose is praiseworthy in many respects, but I particularly admire how he handles the terminal sentences of paragraphs. My chosen sentence is one example of this, but there are many others. Drawing to a close the fate of the unfortunately aptly named taskmaster, Mr. Severe, he writes: “His death was regarded by the slaves as the result of a merciful providence.” Or consider the end of his paragraph on the “mush” slaves were forced to eat off of a communal tray: “He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied.” No explanation is needed for this example: “The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.” As these samples suggest, Douglass had a talent for epigrammatic—and often painfully ironic—send-offs that don’t just draw the topic of the paragraph to a memorable close but gesture outward to the misshapen condition of the world. 

That talent is on full display in my official selection. It would still be a remarkable sentence if it ended with “and that was the law in Mr. Gardner’s ship-yard.” That clause brings home the significance of the specific trial that he has just narrated in which he was attacked by jealous white apprentices at Gardner’s shipyard in Fells Point, Baltimore (“my school for eight months”), and in defending himself put his life at risk. But Douglass being Douglass, he won’t let the matter end there. He exploits the semicolon’s ability to keep going even after the sentence is technically complete, and thereby grants the reader only a moment to relish his escape before clarifying in the final clause that the city outside Gardner’s shipyard is no less perilous for a black man. In Douglass’s writing, the semicolon doesn’t just demonstrate grammatical know-how; it has moral force.

“She’s killing the pheasant more, even though it’s dead.”

Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (2014)

Admittedly, the sentence immediately following this one is designed to be the centerpiece of the paragraph: “Stamp stamp, gripe, stamp, foot, clutch, stamp.” Beyond the eye-catching italics, the sentence calls for attention by so flagrantly breaking the rules. It’s literally all verb, lacking a subject to perform or an object to endure all of the stamping and grabbing, and there’s also the conspicuous absence of a comma between the first two “stamps.” But I’ve chosen the less edgy precursor because I find it more effective in conveying the impropriety of what Mabel, Macdonald’s goshawk, is doing to the pheasant.

Strictly speaking, you cannot kill something more once it’s dead. Dead is dead. This sentence thus feels a bit like a misuse, even abuse, of language, and that’s exactly what makes it so successful. Mabel has ruthlessly continued to attack her prey even though the life has already gone out of it; she is engaging in what is, from a human perspective, an excess of violence. With the simple placement of an adverb where it doesn’t belong, Macdonald is able not only to describe what she is witnessing (overkill that is not at all metaphorical) but also to excite a feeling of discomfort for the reader through grammatical means.

Macdonald seeks through her close study of Mabel to see something of reality from a goshawk’s eyes, positioning the book at the border between the human and animal experience of the world. Sentences like this one and its flashier neighbor show us how Macdonald must gripe and stamp ordinary English syntax to render that engagement. Sometimes, bad grammar is truer.

Moran argues at one point that “The sentence is where we make the briefest of senses out of this mad, beautiful, befuddling mess: life.” Similarly, Fish speaks of sentence-crafting as an exercise in the “the organization of the world.” Those statements seem valid to me, and sentences like Brox’s and Hamer’s offer evidence of the ways that a sentence, even if forced to stretch a bit, can give a pleasing encapsulation of a subject. But looking back over the other two examples, I wonder if the confident assertions on behalf of the sentence’s sense-making might be missing something. They show us that through a grammatical wobble or an extra appendage, a sentence can also work to unsteady us, pointing to aspects of our world from which we might prefer to avert our gaze. For so many reasons, Fish is right to argue that “sentence craft and sentence appreciation are not trivial pursuits.” We cannot watch sentences closely enough.