What is a sentence, anyway?
In First You Write a Sentence (Penguin, 2018), Joe Moran skirts some possible definitions. Writing a sentence is like birdwatching (page 7), cooking (page 10), or tying your shoelaces (page 17). A sentence is “a small, sealed vessel for holding meaning. It delivers some news—an assertion, command or question—about the world” (page 5). It can “be a single world, or it can stretch into infinity” (page 6). He cites books with famously long sentences (Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Marcel Proust) and books composed of a single sentence (Bohumil Hrabal). A sentence can be a single word. It can mean something entirely other than the sum of its words. As Verlyn Klinkenborg points out in Several Short Sentences about Writing, children begin to read sentences as individual and whole things, not for whatever information they might convey but for their shape and sound, so that “the meaning of the sentence is never a substitute for the sentence itself” (page 20).
Moran is no stranger to studying the banal and elusive stuff of our daily lives—he’s previously written on the history of the queue in 20th-century Britain (Queuing for Beginners, 2010). Like most everyday things, he argues, the sentence is both ordinary—available to anyone—and yet impossible to pin down. Moran departs from procedural grammar guides. “I’ll never be a doctor of writing,” he admits in his introduction; “I scrabble my way through my own sentences on hunches and happenstance” (page 4). In defense of the writer’s hunch, Moran’s book abandons straightforward “how-to” instructions, favouring instead extended metaphors and digressions into Western history, philosophy, and the literary canon to show, rather than tell, what a sentence does.
Throughout Moran’s book runs the central claim that the sentence operates like a metaphor. A sentence attempts to “nail the jelly of reality to the wall” (page 53). It shimmies up and down the ladder of abstraction, moving between particularity and generality to express feelings, thoughts, and other unformed stuff. A well-crafted sentence represents a kind of balancing feat—a tightrope walk between the abstract and concrete.
Take nominalizations. A nominalization is a verb that has been turned into a noun, usually, though not always, ending in “-ion” (i.e. “to decide” becomes “decision”). In this process, the person or thing that acts gets swallowed up by the nominalization (“Jane decides to write” becomes “The decision to write”). Whole events and histories of actants can be summed up in a single word. For instance, “the process of a verb becoming a noun” becomes the nominalized “nominalization.”
Although useful in some contexts, nominalizations risk awkward and plodding prose or, at worst, losing our reader’s attention. When a sentence does away with its subject (the “doer”), it floats towards abstraction. In Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams describes the nominalization as a word that has lost its “flesh and blood character,” the main characters of our sentences. In Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword calls a nominalization a “zombie noun,” verbs hollowed of their living action into lifeless, nominalized husks. Nominalizations form the staple of academic writing, which regularly turns to jargon to succinctly summarize complex ideas with long, disciplinary histories. Yet, when a sentence lingers too long in abstraction, it loses touch with reality. (For more on why nominalizations matter and how to identify them, see the Sept 2022 article for Ask Dr. Editor, “Zombie-Proof Your Writing.”)
Like grammar guides before him, Moran offers his own metaphor. A nominalization, he writes, is like a star:
A nominalization traps energy inside it, turning fluid actions into unmoving things. It is the white dwarf of the sentence. A white dwarf is the shrunken remains of a star, in which gravity has packed the protons and electrons so tight that a spoonful of matter weighs tons. A nominalization is the shrunken remains of a verbal clause, a noun-heavy mass compacted with pre-learned knowledge. But pre-learned by whom? Your reader, you hope—but you can’t be sure.page 56–7
A nominalization, Moran argues, is in fact something of an anti-metaphor: it’s heady abstraction, but it’s also brimming with potential. For Williams and Sword, we inject lifeblood into our dead nouns and animate them through lively verbs; for Moran, we use verbs and concrete language to shake loose and untangle the knotty mass of abstract, noun-ish matter.
More of a motivational book than a style guide, First You Write a Sentence is ideal for both new and experienced writers needing a fresh perspective to the craft of writing. In defense of hunches and happenstance, Moran concludes that understanding sentences, ultimately, begins with cultivating a certain attitude—one of wonder and, perhaps, of relinquishing a desire for mastery. If by its last page Moran’s book still lingers with the question, “What is a sentence, anyway?”; its answer might begin somewhere with “What’s a sentence to you?”
Heidi Rennert is an editor, writer, and academic at linescomposed.ca. She loves digging deep into drafts and collaborating with authors on how best to express their ideas. She has experience working with a variety of academic texts, grants, and creative writing. She’s currently doing a PhD on science, technology, and housekeeping in the 19th century.