An article I encountered recently–Robert Connors’s “The Erasure of the Sentence” from College Composition and Communication (Sep. 2000)–discussed the disappearance of the sentence from composition studies:
The sentence was erased by the gradual but inevitable hardening into disciplinary form of the field of composition studies as a subfield of English studies.
In discussing what was lost, Connors talked about Francis Christensen and his Rhetoric Program for the sentence and paragraph. I found an old workbook, its pages full of sentences from Hemingway, Faulkner, Cather, Fitzgerald, Porter, each exercise asking students to generate their own sentences by imitating, analyzing, expanding upon the given sentence. Christensen writes in the Foreword, “The program is one outcome of a conviction that in our composition courses we do not so much teach our students to write better as simply expect them to writer better.” To teach writing, Christensen begins with the sentence.
Christensen has plenty of interesting things to say about prose and sentences. Such as here:
The inductive study of prose revealed as the most interesting and significant feature of sentences what is called in this program ‘free modifiers.’ These free modifiers, commonly called sentence modifiers, are the principal working unit of the professional writer. It is these modifiers, not subordinate clauses, that give him [sic] his most useful options and make it possible for him to say much in little–to make his writing concrete and specific without making it prolix, to get the movement or rhythm that is the life of prose.
Must a prose writer love the sentence the way a poet, say, loves the line? I don’t know, and I do know the line break broke my poetic spirit, my inability to grasp it turning me into a prose writer instead. I do love the sentence. This blog entry today isn’t very focused, except to say that I think that I shall generate sentences more often, both as a writer and teacher. And that when I think of the sentence, I surely think of Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, but today I think of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
For having lived in Westminster–how many years now? over twenty,–one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.
The sentence pauses, strikes, a suspense, booms, irrevocable. And that voice embedded within Woolf’s final word here. Wondrous. And this:
It rasped her, though, to have stirring about in her this brutal monster! to hear twigs cracking and feel hooves planted down in the depths of that leaf-encumbered forest, the soul; never to be content quite, or quite secure, for at any moment the brute would be stirring, this hatred, which, especially since her illness, had power to make her feel scraped, hurt in her spine; gave her physical pain, and made all pleasure in beauty, in friendship, in being well, in being loved and making her home delightful rock, quiver, and bend as if indeed there were a monster grubbing at the roots, as if the whole panoply of content were nothing but self love! this hatred!
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