washingtonpost.com
The Fate of The Sentence: Is the Writing On the Wall?

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."

Over a cup of coffee recently in his best-view-of-the-Capitol office on the top floor of the Madison Building high above Independence Avenue, he sounds the warning. In complete sentences.

"The words 'community' and 'communicate' come from the same root word," the silver-haired librarian explains. "It logically follows that greater communication would lead to greater community, would bring us all together."

Great leaps in communication create an illusion, he says, that everyone is going to come together. The irony is that every major information revolution in the modern world has failed to stem misunderstanding and societal mayhem -- or even slow it down.

In the mid-15th century, Gutenberg's printing press did not forestall bloody holy wars. The multimedia revolution of the mid-19th century, which included telegraphy, photography and the steam-driven printing press, led to increased nationalist passions and wars among nations.

The Internet revolution, Billington says, creates new possibilities for people to be in touch with others, but it could also lead to a gobbledygook language without sentences and punctuation and paragraphs -- and with less understanding of the world and its meaning.

"We are moving toward the language used by computer programmers and air traffic controllers," he says. "Language as a method of instruction, not a portal into critical thinking."

A day or two after this conversation, Billington took his concerns to a group of educators at the library. The occasion was the April release of the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as "the nation's report card."

According to the report, only one-third of eighth-graders in this country can write with proficiency. The New York Times reported that the crowd laughed when Billington, at the presentation of the report, sounded the alarm about "the slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought -- the sentence.''

Undaunted, he continued. Online communication is sloppily written, he said, and "the sentence is the biggest casualty.''

Was the librarian just kicking it old school? Not necessarily.

Efstathia Siegel, who has been teaching freshman composition at Montgomery College for 10 years, agrees with Billington. "I'm optimistic about students' enthusiasm for learning," Siegel says. "But when it comes to how their sentences are put together, that consciousness is not there."

Love of stories hasn't vanished, Siegel says, and students who want to be writers and storytellers still care about the way sentences are created. "But what about those who don't write the stories?" she says. "That's who I am concerned about. Those who don't have a love of the language."

Being able to write clearly is essential to getting a good job, Siegel says. "I'm not seeing most students care about that," she says.

"In developing an idea," she explains, "it is essential that a paragraph begin with a clear topic sentence from which the idea is developed and expanded by the following sentences. Many students are lost because that beginning sentence lacks a driving or principal idea. What follows are disconnected sentences with little meaning."

Michael Morreau, who teaches philosophy at the University of Maryland, says: "In logic, the sentence is the basic bearer of truth or falsity. I say: It is raining. I use a sentence to provide information about what the world is like around here."

People who don't write and speak in coherent sentences, Morreau says, don't succeed in communication. He is especially concerned about "the death of the good sentence" -- one that imparts clear and concise information.

"It seems pretty obvious and uncontentious that you have got to be able to use sentences to make logical arguments," says James Cargile, who teaches logic at the University of Virginia.

Take a fragment such as: Sad, the king of France. It could mean the king is sad or it could mean it is sad to be the king. Two very different things.

Rifle through the Internet, and you find lots of examples of sentence fragging:

Mark A. Whatley, a psychology professor at Valdosta State University, posted a sampling of bad college-level writing.

"So was true in this study," wrote one student.

"Also, the study including finding out if males were more attracted to tall attractive females or short attractive females," wrote another.

University of Delaware professor Ben Yagoda has been teaching English for 16 years. Students, he says, are getting brighter. But their abilities to write clearly have deteriorated appreciably in the past four or five years.

Most prose that young people read nowadays, Yagoda says, is unedited -- blogs, text messages and instant messages. Consequently, "the things that suffer most are spelling and punctuation. They put a comma, not a period, where there is a pause."

A recent survey by the College Board and Pew Internet and American Life Project found that most students say it's important to know how to write well, but a majority also said that Internet-style language -- including abbreviations and emoticons -- is making its way into their classwork.

Some linguists are not alarmed. "Language, all language, undergoes constant change," Amelia C. Murdoch writes in an e-mail. "And technological developments that impinge on language inevitably cause changes in language, all kinds of changes." Murdoch is president of the just-opened National Museum of Language in College Park.

"I personally do not anticipate the early demise of constructions such as 'Pass the salt' or 'Thou shalt not kill,' " she says. "I believe that people want, require, applaud and revere writing that is clear, logical, forceful and beautiful for their information, their laws, their literature and philosophy."

Martha Kolln, a retired Penn State English professor and author of "Understanding English Grammar," says, "Every new thing that comes along has its naysayers. Kids who are text-messaging . . . certainly sentences are underneath those few words. We do in speech and in writing tend to use elliptical phrases that stand for the whole."

"I'm an optimist myself," she says. "We're still using sentences. Maybe they are fragments of sentences, but good writers use fragments. I would have to see more proof that the sentence is dying."

Wilson Follett, writing in Atlantic magazine, offered proof. In an essay titled "Death of the Sentence," fiction writer and literary critic Follett wrote, "To deal with the organization of thought in words is of necessity to deal with the sentence."

In all languages, he added, "it has been the great continuum."

The sentence, he declared, "is a structure inherently faithful to the pattern of consciousness." It is "an instrument inevitable and perfect for the expression of thought."

But, wrote Follett, the sentence is under attack. "To what stage of vagueness, confusion, or sheer lunacy must the English sentence be pushed to evoke any noticeable volume of outcry?"

Follett's essay appeared in Atlantic's October issue. Of 1937.

At the time, he was not concerned about millions of text-messagers and e-mailers killing the sentence. He was worried about highbrow writers -- such as John Dos Passos and Harvard University's Bernard DeVoto -- using long, looping sentences that did not adhere to the strict grammatical and punctuation rules of the day.

Back then there was concern that sentences were too complex; today, that sentences are not complex enough. And that's the way it.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company