The Fate of The Sentence: Is the Writing On the Wall?

(Photo Illustration By Susana Sanchez -- The Washington Post)
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By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2008

The demise of orderly writing: signs everywhere.

One recent report, young Americans don't write well.

In a survey, Internet language -- abbreviated wds, :) and txt msging -- seeping into academic writing.

But above all, what really scares a lot of scholars: the impending death of the English sentence.

Librarian of Congress James Billington, for one. "I see creeping inarticulateness," he says, and the demise of the basic component of human communication: the sentence.

This assault on the lowly -- and mighty -- sentence, he says, is symptomatic of a disease potentially fatal to civilization. If the sentence croaks, so will critical thought. The chronicling of history. Storytelling itself.

He has a point. The sentence itself is a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Something happens in a sentence. Without subjects, there are no heroes or villains. Without verbs, there is no action. Without objects, nothing is moved, changed, destroyed or created.

Plus, simple sentences clarify complex situations. ("Jesus wept.")

Since its invention centuries ago, the sentence has brought order to chaos. It's the handle on the pitcher, a tonic chord in music, a stair step chiseled in a mountainside.

To combat writer's block, Ernest Hemingway advised: "All you have to do is write one true sentence . . . and then go on from there."

A proverb "is a short sentence based on long experience," according to Miguel de Cervantes.

The sentence, Billington says, is the "greatest way to render narrative."


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