Thursday, August 12, 2010

Pesky Sentence

A writer recently suggested "the anatomy of a sentence" as a discussion topic for a writers' group. Yes, I responded in a pithy snarky manner, but I actually paused and gave this topic some thought. HEY!!!! STOP!!! Don't run away, it won't hurt. Let's talk about the sentence. I'll be brief.

A student recently read my work and said, "You use fragments and run-on sentences, why can't I?"
My response: "I'll fail you."

So how am I able to use single words as entire sentences and justify fragments? How can I abandon the subject+verb predicate structure. Mayhem! Craziness! People running naked in the streets!

If you follow a linguistic approach to grammar, you might say a sentence is merely an utterance, regardless of how it is constructed. An utterance is a natural unit of communication conveyed in a manner common between sender and receiver.

Still awake? Work with me here, people.

The sentence as a language unit, when it is part of an utterance, or is expressed as an independent utterance, has grammatical boundaries as well as grammatical completeness and unity.

The sentence "Hmmmm" for instance, is primarily an utterance and has none of the accepted grammatical elements we associate with a sentence, such as subject and verb predicate. It is merely an onomatopoeia. However, used alone as an utterance, it may be allowed a grammatical completeness and therefore has the grammatical boundary of the period. 
I'm not suggesting we abandon traditional grammar. However, writers need to pace their content, delivering words with a 'feel' or rhythm. Varying sentence structure, and how a sentence is delivered is critical in keeping the reader involved.


Anonymous said...


How's that for an utterance?

Seriously though, I agree that good writing is not always good grammar. I remove the perfectly grammatically correct "that" from my work quite frequently to help speed up pacing.

Steve Buchheit said...

You can respond to the student by saying, "Before you can break the rules, you must demonstrate you understand them. And then you need to demonstrate you know when to break them."

Jon said...

A sentence seems to be some letters followed by a period.
And bourbon is C6H24O6. At once you are right and wrong.

God, I love the sentence; the breath of it, the flesh of words. And several in a row? Oh yeah...breath repeated, flesh moving.

Okay, I'll stop.

Sure the sentence can be defined and discussed and fought over. I'd just rather not.

Stewart Sternberg said... a perfectly good utterance.
Steve...I shall remember that.
Jon, you don't want to debate the sentence, and yet you comment. And no, I am not right and wrong, I am merely expressing a linguistic viewpoint, which helps explain why certain grammatical rules may be bent.

Kate Sterling said...

Hmmm. Interesting.

Marsha said...

"Before you can break the rules, you must demonstrate you understand them. And then you need to demonstrate you know when to break them."

I agree with Steve...that is an excellent come-back...can I use that on occassion?

My grammar is not so great. I am always rewriting.