Definition of a Sentence :
Before elaborating too much on the nature of sentences or trying to define a sentence's parts, it might be wise to define a sentence itself. A sentence is a group of words containing a subject and predicate
. Sometimes, the subject is "understood," as in a command: "[You] go next door and get a cup of sugar." That probably means that the shortest possible complete sentence is something like "Go!" A sentence ought to express a thought that can stand by itself, but it would be helpful to review the section on Sentence Fragments
for additional information on thoughts that cannot stand by themselves and sentences known as "stylistic fragments." The various Types of Sentences
, structurally, are defined, with examples, under the section on sentence variety. Sentences are also defined according to function: declarative (most of the sentences we use), interrogative (which ask a question — "What's your name?"), exclamatory ("There's a fire in the kitchen!"), and imperative ("Don't drink that!").
In Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 (IIiv), we see that great "stuffed cloak-bag of guts," Falstaff, in debate with his good friend Prince Hal, the future King of England. After a night of debauchery together, he is imploring his young friend not to forget him when Hal becomes King. The banter goes on, but the best part of it is Falstaff's last few sentences on the matter (talking about himself here — his favorite subject).
But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
The speech is quite a ramble, filled with Falstaff's lively good spirits. How can the Prince follow this? He does, with two little sentences:
I do. I will.
And there you have it. The prince knows he must someday, soon, renounce his life with Falstaff and turn to the responsibilities of ruling England. All the kinetic energy of Falstaff, manifested in the turns of phrase and rhythm in this speech, has been dammed up, thwarted and turned back by those two little sentences, four little words.
That's what variety of sentence length can do. Great expansiveness followed up by the bullwhip crack of a one-liner. It's not that one kind of sentence is better than the other (although the taste of the twentieth-century reader generally favors the terse, the economical). It's just that there are two different kinds of energies here, both potent. Use them both, and your prose will be energized.
The trouble is that many writers, unsure of themselves, are leery of long sentences because they fear the run-on, that troll under the bridge, forgetting that it is often better to risk imperfection than boredom.
What we need, then, is practice in handling long sentences. It is relatively easy to feel confident in writing shorter sentences, but if our prose is made up entirely of shorter structures, it begins to feel like "See Dick run. See Jane jump. See Jane jump on Puff." Primer style (pronounced "primmer" in the U.S.A.), it's called, and it would drive a reader crazy after a while.
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