The Sentence: The Unifying Life Principle

Sep 5, 2011
 

I think it is safe to say that many students today, even adults, do not very well understand the sentence. It is quite common to find a hazy vagueness in regard to what a sentence is and how to make one. This is understandable; we live in a fragmented, distracted age. But fortunately, if we can unlock the sentence, we can unlock everything, perhaps even life and the universe!  But we cannot get to the center of the universe, let alone the central idea of a book, essay, article, or paragraph, until we have a clear grasp of what such things are composed of: sentences.

The most appropriate place to begin is with the logos, the word—the particular units that make sentences. For such, I hearken to the study of grammar in the nineteenth century, where mastery of fundamental facts was insisted upon before conceptualizing more complex ideas. I now open the brittle pages of an 1878 original schoolbook par excellence, Harvey's Grammar.

The first page begins with a list of nine definitions (word, language, grammar, English grammar, orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody). Then begins Part I, Orthography, which treats the elementary sounds, letters, syllables, and spelling. For example, the elementary sounds are divided into vocals, subvocals, and aspirates. This is followed by letters, and then diphthongs (two vocals sounded together in the same syllable) and digraphs (two vowels written together in the same syllable, both representing a single elementary sound). I only mention this to illumine how meticulous a foundation was laid before even arriving at a study of the word.

But for our purposes here, I will hop over orthography and begin with the word. Here is the Harvey's Grammar definition: “A word is a sign of an idea.” This is surprisingly simple, yet profound. A word is a symbol or representation of an idea, and the idea arises from our perception of a thing, past or present. We perceive an object, an idea is formed, and then a word comes to represent the idea. I think of Aristotle's Categories here, for he too begins with words, "things that are said," in 1a16: "Of things that are said, some involve combination while others are said without combination. Examples of those involving combination are 'man runs', 'man wins'; and those without combination 'man', 'ox', 'runs', 'wins'."

Let us now reflect upon what I consider in this essay to be the most important unit—that which is composed of words: the sentence.  Harvey’s Grammar prefaces its definition of a sentence as follows:  "The object of the lesson is: (1) To exercise pupils in the construction of simple sentences; (2) To teach the uses and definitions of the elements of a sentence; (3) To teach the analysis of sentences containing elements of the first class."  I am quite sure that if we taught our students about the sentence in this precise, enumerated manner, they would be well on their way to clarity of thought and speech.

The sentence is defined in this way: "A sentence is an assemblage of words making complete sense." This is further elucidated by the following definitions: “Each group of words is also called a Proposition; for a proposition is a thought expressed in words. In the proposition ‘Chalk is white,’ the noun chalk is called the subject; for the subject of a proposition is that of which something is affirmed. ‘White’ is called the predicate; for the predicate of a proposition is that which is affirmed of the subject. The word ‘is’ is called the copula (now called a linking verb); for the copula is a word or group of words used to join a predicate to a subject, and to make an assertion. In this sentence it affirms that the quality ‘white’ belongs to ‘chalk.’"

Write these definitions in your notebooks. Repeat them in concert.

Interestingly, we can see the imprints of Aristotle in our early grammarians. The sentence, as understood above, has a great deal to do with being. Aristotle, working to understand substance in the beginning of the Categories, says in 2a19, "For example, white, which is in a subject (the body), is predicated of the subject; for a body is called white."

Perhaps here it will be helpful to provide a simple way of thinking about the sentence. A sentence consists of three essentials, and without these three, no group of words can ever be a sentence. A sentence is a group of words that has a subject, a verb, and expresses a complete thought. So, we might ask, what if this group of words has a subject and a verb, but does not express a complete thought? Is it a sentence? No! What if it has a verb and a complete thought but does not have a subject? Is it a sentence? No! Conversely, what if it has just two words, a subject and a verb, yet does express a complete thought—like “Mary sings.”? Is it a sentence? Yes! Or better yet, what if it has only one word, but it meets all three requirements—like “Go!” ? Is it a sentence? Yes! (The subject here is the understood or implied “You.”)

It is also helpful to view a sentence as a "thought contained in words."  In a sense, it is a self-contained central idea, because a thought is one idea. A sentence is its own central idea because it is one idea.

We shall now inquire about the next larger unit, that which is composed of sentences—the paragraph.  A paragraph is a group of sentences that cling together around one idea. Forget the primary-school cliché that a paragraph has four sentences A paragraph can be any length— it is simply a sentence or group of sentences that cling together around one idea.

Just as there are the parts that make up a sentence (subject, verb, complete thought), there are also parts that make up a paragraph. Those parts are the topic sentence and supporting sentences. The topic sentence says what the central idea (one idea) of the paragraph is. It can be anywhere in the paragraph, though it often appears first. The supporting sentences support and explain the central idea throughout the paragraph. These are the parts of a paragraph, which cling together around one idea.

Finally, we shall examine the next larger unit, that which is composed of paragraphs—the whole work. The whole work can be any complete piece of writing, such as a book, dissertation, article, essay, story, letter, speech, novel, etc. A whole work is a group of paragraphs that cling together around one idea. The one idea is usually announced in the thesis statement somewhere in the first paragraph or two, or in the introductory section of a longer work. And the one idea is often overtly announced in the title. A whole work of writing can be any length—it is simply a group of paragraphs that cling together around one idea.

So to put this all very simply, everything is built upon the concept of one idea—from one word, the sign of an idea, all the way to a whole work, a longer expression of one idea. By uncanny similarity, when we multiply 1 x 1, we always get one.

The sentence is central, the most important unit in any scheme. It is, mightily, a sentence-centric universe.

So, students, let us play detectives. We now possess a special tool that will unlock any mystery we choose to solve. We can consider any set of words and run them through the three-point check to determine whether they make a sentence (subject, verb, complete thought). Then we can decode the sentence for its one idea, then decode a paragraph for its one idea, and then a whole work for its one idea.

Finally, we might even say that each one of us, a singular, unified human being, has but one idea—our essence or soul—which distinguishes each of us from other people and from other things. And perhaps each and every thing in nature is one idea—that which makes it a thing. And we contemplate each of these things in the form of a sentence. Once we understand the profound truth that the sentence is the soul of life, even a source of life, then our most precious, yet so often disjointed, treasures—our mind, soul, and language—may be made one again.

A rather fitting conclusion to a reflection on the sentence comes by way of Aristotle in his De Interpretatione, 16a3:

"Now spoken sounds are symbols of affections in the soul, and written marks symbols of spoken sounds. And just as written marks are not the same for all men, neither are spoken sounds. But what these are in the first place signs of—affections of the soul—are the same for all; and what these affections are likenesses of—actual things—are also the same."

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David M. Wright

David M. Wright

David M. Wright is the director and writer of the Upper-School literature curriculum at Memoria Press. He has taught AP Literature and English with a focus on the Great Books for the last ten years. He received his master’s degree in English lit. from DePaul University, completed the CiRCE Teacher Apprenticeship program, and is currently working on a PhD. at the Univ. of Louisville. He is the founder and director of the annual Climacus Conference in Louisville, KY.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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David,

This is good stuff. If you haven't, pick up Stanley Fish's new book on the Sentence.

Thank you for this wonderful post. I've never heard the definition and importance of a sentence so helpfully defined.

As an English teacher responsible for, among other things, both grammar and vocabulary, I find it helpful to begin at morphemes when I define units of meaning, rather than words--a morpheme being, obviously, the smallest unit of semantic meaning in a language. Students are fascinated when they realize how even tiny combinations of letters like "a-," "un-," or "-able" communicate information.

Thank you, Alison! And especially for mentioning that you begin with morphemes for defining units of meaning. That is something I have never done and it is a great tip. I'll be looking into that for sure. Thanks and have a great year.