Sunday, March 20, 2016

'Twas Brillig, and the Slithy Sentences Did Build up Steam

If you are about to take a road trip, say to visit your eldest niece and her family in Santa Fe, you're more than likely to take the care for a check-up. Almost--but not quite--without thinking about it when you begin a project, you check the equipment of dramatic narrative, the beat, the scene, not so much because you fear you'll forget them as to remind you of their presence and availability.

There are times when checking such basic tools as types of sentences add the extra security of preparedness. Although the declarative sentence is the most common of all the sentences and your work reflects their frequency and usefulness, you often need to go through a few drafts before these workhorses begin to appear in your text.With chilling regularity, declarative sentences begin to appear in your work when you begin chopping longer, more ornate sentences into two or three parts.

A declarative sentence is a statement of fact. That sentence was, in fact, a declarative sentence. Although you're at some pains to avoid beginning sentences with the word "it," you cheerfully recognize "'Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbal in the wabe:" is a declarative clause within a declarative sentence, also a magical one, coming from one of your favored poems, Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky. The next line is part of the declarative sentence: "All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe."  

The next sentence within the poem is a clear demonstration of the imperative sentence: "Beware the Jabberwock, my son!"  You couldn't ask for something more imperative. You could say "Go." or "Stay," or even "Get out." And you would be getting a message forth, but it would somehow lack the elegance of the Carroll poem, particularly when you consider the next sentences:

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!"

There are indeed other kinds of sentences, such as the question or interrogatory sentence, not the least of which is "And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?" There is also the exclamatory sentence, " Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
  He chortled in his joy."

To settle any doubts, you are quite fond of declarative sentences. Once in a while, one or more of your characters, if the work is fiction, will ask a question, "What were you thinking?" or propose an exclamatory, "You've got to be fucking kidding." You are at some pains to make sure the sentences you write that do not fall into these categories and instead find their way into such categories as complex, ornate, and Faulknerian are easy to unravel, at the same time contributing substance to the work at hand.

How nice to be able to blame your frequent lapses into orotundity on your growing interest and appreciation of the works of William Faulkner, but your use of long sentences slipped into place long before you'd established meaningful connection with Faulkner. 

When you worked for the Associated Press, the editors set great store by keeping sentences under twelve or so words, outright saying in their style guide that a sentence of seventeen words was at the outer lengths of where a sentence should go. One editor informed you how The Associated Press had paid a considerable sum of money to a man named Rudolf Fleish to study the effective sentence lengths for wire service journalism, which led you to suspect that much as considerable sums of money might be nice, no amount of it could induce you to go around recommending to writers how many words were enough for one sentence.

By the time a sentence got upwards of ten words, those AP editors were trying to impress on you, the writer ought to start thinking about handing the keys over to another sentence, one that had not been through the ordeal of conveying so much information. That was, to be sure, journalism, and while you could see how such narratives were predicated on getting as much information front-loaded as possible, you were mindful of one older AP editor who told you how long sentences reminded him of his boyhood times of pushing cars out of mud puddles.

Much as you like the occasional meandering sentence, coursing through an essay or story like a respectable river, gathering some serious current behind and below it, you like the notion of a reader caught up in the most important part of the narrative, the current of story, or the drift of an essay.

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