On Writing; The Name of the Sentence

Our word “sentence” comes from the Latin word for “opinion.” In late 14th-century Middle English, Chaucer describes a theology student at Oxford as “full of high sentence,” that is, full of solemn moral pronouncements. We see that meaning carried forward in the word “sententious,” a pejorative term for an opinionated, moralistic jerk. We see that meaning too in the word’s penal denotation: as our friends Byron Benedict and Lowell Ford know, a “sentence” can be a very definite judicial pronouncement.


How do we get our word “sentence,” a formal grammatical concept, from a word for “opinion” and “moral pronouncement”? I don’t know. I doubt that anyone does. But we can hypothesize: the sentence is the way we say something about something.

(I know, that sounds pretty obvious, right? A friend once noted that I have a genius for the obvious, which I suspect was some kind of left-handed opinion.)

The sentence is a statement, and the word “statement” comes from the Latin word for “stand,” which carries us a little further: the sentence is a statement where we take a stand.

In contrast, a sentence fragment, an incomplete sentence, is simply a series of words in which we don’t actually say something about something, where we don’t express an opinion or take a stand. Let’s give it a try. Here are two words we see a little too frequently in the headlines these days:

Donald Trump.

Those two words alone are not yet a sentence. They constitute a sentence fragment. They announce something, a subject of discussion, but the two words just sit there, passive, inert, unengaged. There’s no sentence until I turn those two words into a grammatical subject by adding a predicate.

(Reader, be warned: we are about to dip into a little grammar here, but bear with me. Grammar is a lot of fun, once you get to know it. Just like etymology. As my friend Virginie Duverger says: “j’adore la grammaire.”)

To become a sentence, “Donald Trump” needs a “predicate.” (We are talking about grammar here; what the real Donald Trump needs I decline to say.)

The subject of a sentence is the thing we’re telling a story about. The predicate is the story we tell about that subject. Having announced our subject, we can’t just let it sit there. We have to activate it, put it into action.

Here, again, etymology helps lead us deeper into the nature of the sentence: “predicate” comes from the Latin word for “to declare” or “to preach.” The priest who brought me into the Roman Catholic Church, the late Thomas Coskren of Providence College, was a member of the Dominican Order, also known as Ordo Praedicatorum: the Order of Preachers. To predicate is to preach. (And Father Thomas was the best predicator I’ve ever heard.)

When we add a predicate to our subject, we preach, we state our opinion, we make a declaration about the subject.

(My son Harry points out that, in speaking, sometimes a subject can be fully predicated without adding anything more. Say the words “Donald Trump” with an incredulous or dismissive tone of voice, and ‘nuff said:

Donald Trump???

In print, of course, we have to use several question marks to substitute for the incredulity communicated by our tone of voice.)

In writing, absent any vocal inflections, we usually need to add a verb or verb clause to create a full predicate that says something about our subject. Some verbs can form a predicate by themselves:

Donald Trump walks.

But not all verbs.

Donald Trump would.

That’s not an opinion, not yet, and it doesn’t tell a story. We don’t know what “Donald Trump would.” The sentence remains incomplete, a sentence fragment. We’re close to having a sentence here, but we’re not there yet. We need a direct object:

Donald Trump would not know good government if it bit him on the ass.

OK, so now that’s a pronouncement; now we’re preaching. We’ve completed our sentence. We’ve stated our opinion (okay, okay, MY opinion) by adding the direct object “good government” (and with a little conditional clause thrown in at the end just for emphasis).

What about a sentence that’s less opinion and more of a fact?

Donald Trump has a comb-over.

That’s not so much an opinion as a fact, but I’m not sure the difference between opinion and fact is really significant here. Michelle notes waggishly that The Donald’s comb-over is both a fact and a fiction: a fact that it’s a comb-over, and a fiction that The Donald has hair growing out of the top of his head.

Between fact and opinion, and between fact and fiction, there’s often a lot more interplay than we generally acknowledge. Think “reality” show. And we have a special word for an opinion that we all share: we call it a “fact.”

Opinions, pronouncements, taking a stand, telling the story, preaching: the sentence is where we say something about something.

At all turns, the words we use to talk about the sentence insist that we find its nature in the act of engaging with the world and saying something definite about it. The sentence is how we tell the story of what we see, what we think, what we experience and what we believe.

Maybe at some fundamental level bad writing betrays some little diffidence that restrains us from saying what we think — or from confidently accepting that what we really think is actually true.

Another professor of mine, also a Dominican priest—those Dominicans are some tough customers — used to say that good thinking begins with trusting those thoughts you actually have, not the thoughts someone else has. Good writing, too. And yet another one of my beloved Dominicans, St. Thomas Aquinas, said this: “Trust the authority of your senses.” When we write, we should add this kicker: Trust the authority of your senses to your sentences.

The formal characteristics of the sentence — subjects, predicates, objects: these all lead us to see that the name of the sentence is an act of engagement, one way we come to recognize that “truth” is not some passive observation but an active grappling with the world and the lives we really live.


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