Short Sentences

Tomorrow in ENGL328, we’re working with “Short Sentences,” the first chapter in Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. The chapter presents four basic sentence types or kernels: equations with be, equations with linking verbs, transitives, and intransitives. In the first half of the chapter, Tufte attaches numerous examples to each type of short sentence. I find the types to be fairly intuitive and, perhaps because they are short, easy to identify. Only the equations with linking verbs give me pause because the linking verbs tend to stoke a deeper philosophical question concerned with being and transformation, i.e., whether the subject is altered by the piling on of noun complements.

In the second half of the chapter, Tufte switches scales, moving from the local logic of these four sentences to their paragraph-cumulative effect, whether one type is deployed repeatedly or whether they are working in combination with other types. Here the idea is basically that the two equative types stroll along at a slow pace, intransitives elicit slightly more movement or action, and transitives deliver the most bang because they maximize one thing’s verbing of another thing (the direct object, required for the transitive form). Tufte’s paragraph-long examples highlight the cumulative effect of these short sentence types in context.

A couple of tweets from students today have forewarned me (whether they were meant for me or not) that we will have a fair amount of skepticism to work through tomorrow. As far as I can tell (from their own short sentences, of course) the value of this framework is in doubt. That’s fair. And, in fact, I’m glad to see that they are not only reading Tufte but tweeting about it before class. I think of Tufte’s opening chapter as offering both an analytic method and a heuristic, or generative guide, for revision. The analytic method amounts to a vocabulary and a set of techniques for differentiating sentence types. It’s difficult, without seeming enamored of current-traditionalism, to say that grasping such principles as these helps writers. But it does offer us a scheme for talking about prose style, for pinpointing in yet one more way a sentence’s distinction.

Also, I’m interested in establishing tension between Tufte’s approach and Lanham’s Paramedic Method, which we will look at for Wednesday. Lanham, after all, insists on the importance of concrete subjects and action-packed verbs. Tufte’s attention to equatives and to pacing lends something of value to the subject-verb or character-action patterns so conspicuous in Lanham’s method (also in Williams’ Style). So, while I recognize the value in keying on vivid subject-verb couplings relatively early in sentences, I also appreciate Tufte’s recognition that equative forms may bear strategically on the acceleration (or idling speed) of a passage.


A couple of PHP modules just for kicks:

First, at Pholph’s
Scrabble Generator
, via
MGK, you input
a few words and it returns the corresponding scored letter tiles.  My name
totaled a mere twenty points–hardly anything to celebrate.  Still, I’m
grateful that it’s a K5 instead of an L1 or another E1
to round off my first name.  That’d have been terrible.

And second, for the repressed generative grammarian in you, at
Syntax Tree
you can use a combination of nested brackets to diagram sentences.  Nobody
does that anymore?  Oh.  Well, in that case, you could game the module
and use it to tree-structure just about anything. 

And although focused activity lasting for more than one hour may occur
rarely with PHP modules such as these, it is important to seek something else to
do immediately if you find yourself dawdling with them for any longer.