The author Annie Dillard once wrote about a fellow writer who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer, too?” “Well,” was the reply, “do you like sentences?”
Sentences, more than words, are the basic building blocks of all we write. They are containers to organise thoughts and describe the world. Beautiful sentences, as William H. Gass said, are “rare as eclipses”.
In his new book, Suppose A Sentence, essayist Brian Dillon offers a compilation and discussion of memorable sentences that he has been copying into the pages of his notebooks for over two decades. These are the stars that, for him, shine more brightly from “a teeming sky of inscriptions”.
He makes it clear that his intent is not to come up with a general theory of the sentence or a set of prescriptions. Instead, he views the volume as a photomontage, “an art of excision and juxtaposition”. Further, he eschews epigrams, such as those by Wilde or Cioran, in favour of sentences that “open under my gaze, not preserve or project their perfection”.
The shortest and most enigmatic of the twenty-seven selections here is the first: “O, o, o, o”. It’s to be found in one of the variants of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and it follows the prince’s dying “the rest is silence”.
For Dillon, this is a precise vocal expression of silence, because ‘O’ is the “tragic apotheosis of zero”. That should give one a flavour of his analysis.
Others follow, by John Donne, Thomas de Quincy, Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Bowen, to name a few. The writers reveal Dillon’s preferences: he favours the impressionistic and, at times, the packed and dense.
In these mini-essays, he often veers away from the sentence to discuss its context, be it the larger work, or relevant circumstances of the author’s life. Then, he circles back to it with a renewed appreciation.
Some of the sentences are from unusual sources. For example, there’s a photo caption that Joan Didion wrote while at Vogue, in which Dillon discovers an attention to sound and a precise arrangement of words that have marked all of her work.
Elsewhere, he unpacks the meanings of the word “suppose” in a sentence by Gertrude Stein. “Suppose” could mean “assume, presume, presuppose”. But it could also be: “imagine, posit, believe”. And yet more: “imply, represent, require to exist”. This is the level of close reading throughout the book.
Dillon’s observations on a sentence from Eliot’s Middlemarch can be said to sum up his enterprise. “Here is a sentence,” he writes, “whose art as well as import demanded I become a more sympathetic reader—and person”. The world of a novel, and indeed, the world itself, could be like “a densely woven fabric, and the best we can do is pick at its pattern in one place, hoping thereby to comprehend the whole”.
Suppose A Sentence, then, is both intense and idiosyncratic. In contrast, literary and legal theorist Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence takes a broader approach, with several pieces of advice and instruction on how to go about building a great sentence.
“Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines,” he writes, but “I appreciate fine sentences”. His book aims at both pleasure and craft, the ability to admire a good sentence and the skill to fashion one.
Fish is clear that without form, content cannot properly emerge. For him, structures are the engines of creativity, and the right one is the best showcase for the thought. His principle: “You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free”.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is in the delectable sentence by John Updike that describes a baseball home run: “It was in the books while it was still in the sky”. Fish notes that the word “while” is the fulcrum, and attempts one of his own: “It was in my stomach before it was off the shelf”.
He’s not making any great claims for his own creation, but simply pointing to the practice. This, after all, is what Greek rhetoricians also recommended.
Fish isn’t a fan of how-to books such as the one by Strunk and White. The objectives of being direct, simple, and short are useful only in some contexts and not others, he says, and so the first thing to ask when writing a sentence is: “What am I trying to do?” The answers are innumerable.
Several examples follow, from writers as varied as Austen, James, Melville, Pater, and Milton. Along the way, there are illuminating discussions on syntax, style, and the way that sentences range from the grand and ornamental to the low or plain.
The cultural historian Joe Moran also isn’t an advocate of the plain style for its own sake. In his book, First You Write a Sentence, he says that behind the ideal of so-called plain English is a mistrust of writing that goes back to Plato. From here comes the notion of writing as a transparent vessel, of prose that’s like a windowpane, in Orwell’s famous coinage.
Moran echoes Fish when he asserts that classical rhetoric is a better strategy. “The rhetorician sees meaning as something reached by tasting and relishing the words, not by trying to make the writing invisible.” So, learn how a good sentence sounds, and then mimic it.
Most people who try and write in a plain style fall into the trap of being glib or banal. Moran’s suggestion is to see how Tyndale, in his English translation of the Bible, uses simplicity to stunning effect. These sentences are strong, syntactical and rich, containing phrases we use to this day: the salt of the earth, the powers that be, the twinkling of an eye.
A sentence sits somewhere between the natural and the human, writes Moran, being a line of words where logic and lyric meet. In this way, it “hews meaning out of the resistances of life and language”. His own sentences are a pleasure to read, as he dwells on the importance of word order, a unifying and distinct voice, and varying lengths.
It takes time, practice, and revision to craft a good sentence, he points out. It should be “a labour to write, not to read”. Simone Weil once observed that attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity, and Moran declares that if you give your sentences that courtesy, they will repay you. That’s as true for the writer as it is for the reader.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.