Chapter

The Sentence: A Definition

Good sentences are the sinew of style. They give to prose its forward thrust, its flexibility, its strong and subtle rhythms. The cardinal virtues of such sentences are clarity, emphasis, concision, and variety. How to achieve these qualities will be our major concern in this part. First, however, we must understand, in a brief and rudimentary way, what a sentence is.

It is not easy to say. In fact, it is probably impossible to define a sentence to everyone's satisfaction. On the simplest level it may be described as a word or group of words standing by itself, that is, beginning with a capital letter and ending with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. (In speech the separateness of a sentence is marked by intonation and pauses.)

And yet an effective sentence involves more than starting with a capital and stopping with a period. The word or words must make sense, expressing an idea or perception or feeling clear enough to stand alone. For example, consider these two sentences:

The package arrived. Finally.

The first consists of a subject and verb. The second is only a single word, an adverb detached from a verb (arrived). The idea might have been expressed in one sentence:

The package finally arrived. The package arrived, finally. Finally, the package arrived.

But we can imagine a situation in which a speaker or writer, wanting to stress exasperation, feels that finally should be a sentence by itself.

As that example indicates, there are sentences which contain subjects and verbs and sentences which do not. The first kind {The package arrived) is "grammatically complete" and is the conventional form sentences take in composition. The second type of sentence {Finally in our example) does not contain a subject and verb and is called a fragment. Fragments are more common in speech than in writing, but even in formal composition they have their place, which we'll consider in a subsequent chapter.

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Project Management Made Easy

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