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How to Write a Sentence

February 23, 2011
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I have begun reading through Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence, a meditation on the power and structure of good sentences.  It has made me increasingly aware of the power of the sentence as the logical unit of meaning.  Fish says that words are meaningless without the relationships within a sentence:

Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere.  Once the words are nestled in the places ‘ordained’ for them…they are tied by ligatures of relationships to one another.  They are subjects or objects or actions or descriptives or indications of manner, and as such they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate admire, reject or refine.

As a part of Black History Month, the high school where I teach participates in the African-American Read-in.  During that event, I ran across one of those marvelous sentences Fish describes.  I found it in the seventh chapter of Frederick Douglass’s autobiographical The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.  Describing his owner’s wife, he says:

 She at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness.

The innocuous pronoun at the beginning, the thunderous arrival of the depravity, the venomous weight of shutting me up, and the echoing finality of the darkness at the end.  Then, the tragic, heart-wrenching insertion of at first takes what would have been a statement of hope and transforms it into a resolute declaration of the wretched sin of slavery.    

It was a dark thought, filled with rage, but it was one of those sentences that arrest you with the weight its message and the economy with which it expresses that thought.  There are twists and turns to savor and diction to examine. 

Similarly, I wonder how often we take the time to examine some of those powerful sentences in Scripture.  One readily thinks of the magnificently crafted, glorious Greek mega-sentence in Ephesians 1:3-14, which is cut into smaller (but still hefty) sentences in English translations.  One might also think of the doctrinal purity of the parallelism of Romans 8:30.  The Bible is not short on powerful sentences.  God has chosen to reveal himself in words, and, if Fish is correct, the sentence is what gives those words relationship and meaning so that they communicate something to us as his children.  It’s somewhat odd to think of a sentence as a means of grace, but I don’t think it’s inappropriate to think of them as such.  They are discrete packets of meaning we can turn over in our heads, meditate on, and recall in times of joy and sorrow.

Fish states that “content, the communication in a thrilling and effective way of ideas and passions, is finally what sentences are for.”  Certainly, the Gospel, the greatest message ever communicated, would be worthy of sentences that reflect its glory. 

Jesus himself was a master sentence crafter, even in translation.  “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks,” he says in Matthew.  This sentence sets up a very direct relationship between mouth and heart.  Whereas one is likely to mask his sin by attributing the offense to his mouth and not his heart, Jesus declares that the heart actually directs the words that a mouth speaks.  The structure of the sentence itself is important.  It would have been just as easy to say, “The mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart.”  The relationship is made even clearer, however, by patterning the sentence after the speech act itself.  First heart, then mouth. 

Paul, in his impassioned letter to the Galatians, describes the miracle of adoption:  “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”  The initial clause (“When the fullness of time had come”) is the snare hit right before the song starts, the “long ago, in a galaxy far, far away” before the triumphant theme, the “once upon a time” before the greatest story in history.  Then, the chiastic structure of the sentence itself reflects the transformation that occurs in the life of a sinner who is converted and adopted.  In the first half of the sentence, God sends his Son; in the second half we become sons.  In the first half of the sentence, Christ is born under the law; in the second half, we are redeemed out from under the law.

 To be sure, individual sentences are never meant to be divorced from context.  Verses yanked and twisted from their context have been used for heinous and heretical purposes.  But there simply would be no meaning without them.  Slow down a bit and marvel at what God speaks in sentences.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. ajcarter permalink*
    February 23, 2011 1:24 pm

    Frederick Douglass and Lee Fowler – what a great way to start the day!

  2. Brett permalink
    March 8, 2011 3:41 am

    I believe possibly the most pregnant sentence in the Bible is found in Revelation 21:6. Jesus says, after every piece of redemptive history has at last been completed, every last promise has been fulfilled, and every single person who ever lived has now seen him in his full and enthroned glory,

    “It is done.”

    The magnitude of each individual word is incomprehensible. “It” is everything, every purpose God ever had from before time. “Is” tells of the most indisputable condition imaginable. Finally, the word that stirs me to tears, “done” is the ultimate period on the end of the sentence of all time.

    Only Jesus has the authority to utter such a sentence. “How long, O Lord” until that day does come?

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