Untidy personal appearance or professionally frayed jeans?
Stench or refined perfume made with whale faecal matter?
Kitsch or baroque extravaganza?
Obsolete or avant-garde?
One question underlies them all:
Does it come off?
If it does, critics manufacture reasons for praise. If it does not, the object under scrutiny is shaded with degrees of doom.
This applies to writing, too. In fact, it’s the reason why self-editing is so difficult: of course this essay-poem-post-book comes off beautifully—I conceived it! No one writing for public consumption believes they’re creating a priori substandard or flawed works.
This is also true on a micro level, when it comes to defining what a (good) sentence is. Must it have a subject and a predicate? Or must it just be a unit of coherent thought?
Fowler’s Dictionary offers ten definitions to illustrate the range of approaches. Number 1 takes the ‘popular approach’.
sentence. What is a sentence?
1. A word or set of words followed by a pause and revealing an intelligible purpose.
It almost sounds like the beginning of a modified Turing test. Note how context sneaks in: purposes are largely intelligible when set off against a particular background.
Number 8 takes the ‘grammarian approach’.
sentence. What is a sentence?
8. A number of words making a complete grammatical structure.
Here the onus is shifted to those willing to define such structures and then grapple with potential exceptions.
Any definition tries to encompass all utterances that are considered valid sentences—you sense the circularity here—considered valid sentences by whom and according to which rule? By consensus and according to the “Does it come off?” rule. We know a sentence when we see one.
Speaking of which, what are your thoughts on verbless sentences?
In rhetoric, a sentence without a main verb is referred to as the scesis onomaton. A train of such verbless sentences can be used to effectively set a static scene, like in this example from Banville’s Mefisto, or, more famously, like at the beginning of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers.
Handy and efficient, if sustained well. But what about one-off uses? I often question my fragments, wondering whether they’re licit, necessary, friendly and colloquial, or just plain lazy writing.
Fowler’s actually classifies (favourably, therefore legitimising) a few applications of the verbless sentence.
First off, the curtailed introductory blurb.
The verbless sentence is a device for enlivening the written word by approximating it to the spoken. There is nothing new about it. Tacitus, for one, was much given to it.
Enlivening is the keyword. Verbless sentences—as exceptions rather than as page-long Dickensian norm—are meant to break up a stultifying sentence-flow, jolt the lulled reader, call to attention, stop short, dance and be unruly.
Now comes the classification. For brevity, I pruned the entries and omitted the ellipses that would indicate where the pruning occurred.
1. Transitional. A verbless sentence may contain a summary comment on what has gone before: True, no doubt. / So far so good. / Of course not. Or it may introduce what is to follow: The practical conclusions? / Finally on one small point. / Lastly the poetry of metaphor. This is the most common literary use; all these examples are taken from the TLS.
In other words, transitional fragments make for sinews and glue between more muscular prose.
2. Afterthought. The use of a full stop instead of a lighter punctuation may suggest a pause for reflection. Some lines might have been written by Auden himself. Well almost. / He thought as much as he observed. More in fact.
Fragments cement opinion.
3. Dramatic climax. Unless something is done soon, Oxford, the home of lost causes, will lose the last cause of all. Oxford. / We shall face difficulties as we always have done. As a united nation.
Fragments crown linguistic crenelations.
4. Comment, especially if arch or strident or intended to surprise. We solved the whole thing by appointing a Royal Commission. A neat solution. Clever us. / I used to eat at a restaurant where she sang. She was vital. Fascinating. Tremendous.
Fragments square the circle unexpectedly, using a pendentive for a squinch and vice versa.
5. Pictorial. Here silence and beauty were absolute. No aeroplane. Not even tree.
Fragments are frescoes and mosaics.
6. Aggressive. The particular dynamism of the publishing group which this books concerns springs, of course, from the rumbustious school of journalism it nurtured. Defying the conventions. Hastening the inevitable in social change. Cocking a snook at the hoary traditions and pomposities of our times. Fighting the taboos.
Fragments do salient points, barbicans, and cannons.
Unclassified: Lastly here are a few examples, from the many that might be given, of verbless sentence that do not lend themselves to classification but are, it seems, merely the product of a winter’s conviction that the more staccato the style the livelier the effect.
So it will be a miracle if we get out restoration. Undoubtedly. / She makes sure the conversation is gay, witty, and light. But business. / He hasn’t go the proper mind for legal technicalities. Too much commonsense. [sic]
Fragments as arabesques.
Fowler’s goes on to investigate the notion of promoting a dependent clause to independent status therefore emphasising it.
This also is frowned upon by some pedagogues, jealous for the integrity of the sentence as defined by grammarians. But it should be judged by the same test as the verbless sentence. Does it come off?
I leave you with my favourite definition of the sentence: number 2 on Fowler’s list.
sentence. What is a sentence?
2. A group of words which makes sense.
Few things in life make sense, but writing should be one of them.
This post is part of a series about the second (1968) edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler, as revised by Sir Ernest Gowers.
- Prefer the Obvious to its Obvious Avoidance: On density of style, and where to find advice on style.
- Every Chance of Going Wrong: On various writing pitfalls.
- It Is True That Words Are Cheap: On synonymia, tautology, circumlocution, pleonasm, meaningless words, and pairs of commonly confused words.
- Does It Come off?: