As we continue our focus on the classic and not-so-classic marks of punctuation for the ends of sentences, we do need to spend a little time considering the sentence itself. What is it? How does it work? What’s important in it and about it? Here we go.
Considering the Sentence
A sentence is a single complete thought. That complete thought may have compound elements; it may have one strong element with a subordinating one.
Length doesn’t matter. Type doesn’t matter. Only two things matter to a sentence.
Every sentence requires a subject (which will have a base NOUN) and its action (the VERB). Modifying elements create specific details. For both of the following sentences, the subject is Einstein and the verb is developed.
- Einstein developed a theory. > Subject = Einstein, Verb = Developed
- The famous scientist Einstein developed during a train ride his theory of relativity.
Two Bases in the Sentence Game
The base noun of a sentence answers “who/what is doing something?” = Subject
The question “Subject is doing what?” leads us to the base verb, usually an action.
(If the Subject is not doing something, if the subject just is, then we have a linking verb.)
Those two elements alone—base noun with its base verb—determine if we have a sentence or not. One without the other is not a sentence; it’s a fragment. Both are necessary.
Tiger, Tiger, Base Bright
There’s an old story in the realm of language development, based on the question of “Which came first, the noun or the verb?” There’s no way for us to know, not really. Both are equally important.
But picture a couple of early hunters with their monosyllabic grunts of various depth and intensity—a proto-language, as it were. Which came first, noun or verb? Well, consider the situation. Let’s have a saber-tooth tiger wander close while they are stalking a deer. Would one hunter warn the other to “hide”, the verb? Or would the hunter give the reason to hide, “tiger”?
Knowing human behavior, my guess is that the hunter gave the reason, not the action, which is the noun, not the verb. If he gave the action, the other guy would say “why?” Then they’re both dead.
Whichever came first, both noun and verb are today so linked that separating them creates fragments of complete thoughts. We have advanced beyond proto-language to sentences. We don’t grunt our way through partial thoughts. Our communication is with complete thoughts.
Here’s a great website that has exercises about avoiding fragments.
The length and combination of our sentences marks our maturity with communicating. Choppy, repetitive sentences are a mark of childish thoughts. Mature sentences are marked by flow, fluent word use and shifting, and an ability to look at the whole and remove the unnecessary.
Look at the following short sentences:
- Einstein is a famous scientist.
- He developed a theory.
- The theory was relativity.
- He developed his theory during a train ride through a tunnel.
Contrast those choppy sentences with this one:
- The famous scientist Einstein developed his theory of relativity while riding a train through a tunnel.
All of these sentences have their own base nouns and verbs. In sentence combining, the base nouns and verbs (and any complements) are not repeated. Where necessary, we change word forms and delete any repetitive elements to form a single smooth complete thought.
Short sentences, one after another, can jerk the reader along the roadway of the text.
However, long sentences can be off-putting.
Sentence length should be rhythmic, short and long and medium, all mixed, just like the rhythm of the sentences in our normal conversations. Consider sentences like waves coming onto the shore. Some waves rush far up the beach, others barely come beyond the foamy surf, and a few come partway up, neither high nor low.
That rhythm of sentences leads us to the next part of our discussion, Sentence Variety. Join us next week for that discussion.