All English teachers used to know what a sentence was: A group of words expressing a complete thought. That definition of sentence had been sacrosanct in traditional--call it prescriptive--grammar since at least the eighteenth century. After several revolutions since in the study of grammar. teachers are not so sure what a sentence is. They are sure, though, that their students should be able to write a "decent sentence." Exactly what a "decent sentence" is is often not quite clear to the student. Leaders of the first grammar revolution--call it descriptive or structural linguistics--weren't concerned with helping the student with an easy, clear definition of sentence. They ridiculed the notion of the sentence as a complete thought; they couldn't even say what an incomplete thought is. All they could say is that a sentence is based on the sounds of the language as people speak. They noticed that the human voice in speech has variations in pitch: The voice goes from low to high in regular patterns that conform to the speaker's meanings. They also noticed that the voice makes changes in stress (or loudness) and can make pauses in meaningful ways. They concluded that a certain combination of pitch, stress, and pause sounds signal the end of a sentence. They called this combination an "independent terminal juncture group," and, when it was followed by silence, a sentence had been spoken. They were satisfied with these observations as a definition of a sentence, but the English teachers--who were not trained to be phoneticians-- found no use for it in the teaching of writing.The structural linguists' idea of the sentence was largely ignored, and the English teachers also tended to ignore the prescriptive rules against split infinitives and ending a sentence with a preposition. They took the linguists' advice and made usage their standard, the usage of respectable native speakers and writers, who made many "mistakes."

Then in the 1960s came a profound revolution--call it Chomsky's transformation revolution--that brought the sentence into great prominence in the study of language. We can ignore the extremely technical definitions of the sentence offered by the Chomskians, but we can thank them for making one thing clear about the sentence: Transformations of sentences into questions, exclamations. indirect quotations, "there" sentences, and many kinds of embeddings, modifications, and subordinations remind the writer that he can choose from an infinite number of changes in the structure of a sentence. "Infinite" does not mean simply "a great number." Chomsky is quite literal when he says that the number of possible different sentences is infinite. There is no such thing, for example, as the world's longest sentence; the writer can always add words to any sentence to make it longer. Since variety is often a quality that can improve writing, specifying how to make certain changes in sentences, making transformations, is Chomsky's contribution to the art of written style. Chomsky also revived the notion of the grammatical sentence, which the descriptive linguists had largely ignored; their description of the facts of usage had convinced them that the English language had long accommodated many of the so-called grammatical errors. Chomsky was by no means interested in reinforcing the grammar purists' fuss about who-whom and shall-will. but he made grammaticality a respectable and interesting concept by pointing out that sentences like "John is owning a house" and "Both of John's parents are married to aunts of mine" are in some sense ungrammatical. And neither of them, I would add, is decent.

The definition of "sentence" for this book derives from aspects of all three kinds of grammar sketched above. A statement in the form of a definition is cumbersome, hardly decent, but would go like this: A sentence is one of the infinitely variable expressions of the writer's complete thought, punctuated according to the code that translates the spoken utterance into written form. A "decent sentence" is grammatical, clear, and graceful. All of the sentences I shall present here are decent: many of them go beyond decent and are artistic, poetic, and beautiful.

E-mail and comments to:   Arnold Nelson

Proceed to next section

Return to Table of Contents