Monday, March 02, 2009

The Sentence

Words only have meaning in the context of sentences. This basic insight, which Wittgenstein learned from Frege, is at the root of developing your style. You are trying to find a way of putting words together to give them the sense you want to express. I want to devote the month of March to sentences, to the elementary act of giving words meaning.

This is a sentence. Take a close look at it. If I had written "This is a hat" you would have expected to see it under a picture. Or, suppose we add just the word "harsh": "This is a harsh sentence." The concept of a "harsh sentence" is rarely applied to writing; we generally find it in discussions of criminal cases, where the sentence is determined after a judgment is made. In legal contexts, sentences mete out punishments. So we would now expect a sentence preceding the sentence (about the sentence) to state the terms of a sentence. Something like:

He has been given five years without any chance of parole. This is a harsh sentence.

Compare the following:

Near the end of Smith's beautiful story there is a parting that ends with the following words: "You are not welcome here and your dog is not welcome here and your wife neither." This is a harsh sentence, perhaps the only harsh words spoken in the entire story. It is also the first and only time Jack opens his mouth to speak. The effect is therefore all the more dramatic.

I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this yet. But I need something to focus our attention on style and grammar. More on Wednesday.


Jonathan said...

Nicely set-up example, but you retain the ambiguity of "sentence," in the sense that the speaker of this grammatical sentence is also meting out a punishment: banishment for wife and dog. If you wanted to avoid that ambiguity, you would have to write something like:

"Jerry prided himself on the mellifluousness of his prose, so he was disappointed when his professor underlined a particularly harsh sentence in his corrected essay in red ink."

Thomas Basbøll said...

Good point. I wanted to use the words "This is a harsh sentence", however. So, to use your example:

Jerry had a high opinion of his own writing and always spent a great deal of time savouring the praise of his teachers. But Dr. Alvienne's handwriting was very difficult to read; it was virtually illegible, in fact. So when he got the paper back he spent more time deciphering the comments and less time savouring them. One remark in the margin, written beside an underlined sentence in the paper, gave him particular trouble. No matter how hard he squinted at the words, they always came out the same: "This is a harsh sentence." Since Jerry's sentence was not about punishment at all, he had no idea what to make of these words. Dr. Alvienne, he concluded, had been drinking while marking his paper.