British History, Culture & Sports, History of Freedom, Heroes, Inventors, Brits at their Best.com, English country scene

Blog Home | All Posts

An important question about English sentences

Simon Blackburn, the Bertrand Russell Professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, and a Research Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has reviewed How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish. Simon's review has given me inspiration and a question. First, here are two paragraphs from his review -

. . .perhaps it is enough if we simply attune ourselves to structure, balance, rhythm, and precision. Generations of English listeners had this sensitivity practiced weekly, as the great sonorous cadences of the King James Bible rolled over them: 'And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. . .' Without that astonishing language, we would have had no Milton, no Johnson, no Wordsworth, no Lawrence, no Eliot. The last is particularly interesting, since the famous words beginning his “Journey of the Magi” are directly taken from a letter Lancelot Andrewes, one of the Jacobean translators, wrote to King James: 'A cold comming they had of it, at this time of the yeare: just the worst time of the yeare, to take a journey, and specially a long journey, in. The ways deepe, the weather sharp, the daies short, the sunn farthest off. . .the very dead of winter.' Two sentences, admittedly, but what a pair. Presumably deliberately, Fish avoids examples from either Shakespeare or the King James, preferring instead the less familiar, but to my ear less accessible, solemnities of the later seventeenth century in Milton and Bunyan.

. . .Sentences matter, perhaps more than anything else, so I shall end with a contemporary application. As I write, the British government is imposing a duty on academics to show that their work has “impact,” which is to be a provable occurrence of social, economic, or political benefit, signed and witnessed within the last five years. This insanity could only have come about because not a single one of its perpetrators had read or understood one of Fish’s favorites, the final sentence of Middlemarch, contrasting Dorothea’s quiet future with the idealistic visions of doing good with which she started life: 'But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.' Perfect.

Now here is the question - do sentences shape us? Wittgenstein thought that half a man or half a woman could not write a whole sentence. Do whole sentences create whole men and women?


Post a comment

(Please do give us your name or the name you write under in the form below and your URL if you have one. Your comment may take a little time to appear. Thanks for waiting.)

COPYRIGHT