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The Elusive Perfect Sentence

November 27, 2012

Published here on November 27, 2012

In the quest to better myself as a writer, I have often wondered what it would be like to compose the perfect sentence. What would it look like? Would it be dripping wet with similes and metaphors like a rag after it’s been used to dry the dishes? Would it be afloat with abundant alliterations and additional auditory amusements? Would it contain a naively brilliant rhetorical device such as an antithesis, or would it be long enough to contain an anaphora? Such are the musings of my mind.

The greats of literatures past have all professed a love for words, yet I find them slightly less interesting when left alone individually. Nay, the power to move men, the power that made the pen mightier than the sword only comes when words are juxtaposed with one another to express potent ideas. And while it’s true that a single word can represent such an idea (cue Obama’s “Hope” from the 2008 presidential campaign), we would severely limit ourselves in a great deal of our communication were we to follow suit. Can you imagine how even the simplest conversation would go?

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

“Good?”

“Good. You?” (That’s two words, but I couldn’t think of how to further the conversation.)

“Good.”

We would never be able to move beyond the incredibly mundane. There’s a reason why grammar teachers throughout our childhoods put us through the torture of diagramming sentences. While our middle school minds went adrift through their typical wanderings, our teachers were, in fact, demonstrating how words could be used with each other to spread ideas. Do you remember when you learned that one word could be one of several different parts of speech, depending on the context? That’s another benefit simple word-lovers cannot fully enjoy. The same word, even something as simple as “lead,” can be cloaked in vastly different meanings, and we are only able to derive the meaning (or more accurately, the idea behind the construction of symbols) if we also have the context in which the word was placed. It’s only by stepping back and peering at the sentence as a whole that we can fully recognize the subtleties of each word.

Here’s an example. Say it’s the night of a grand ball. You’ve come dressed impeccably, assured that you will be irresistible to the eyes of everyone else. Yet, to your dismay, when you step through the doors to the gathering you go completely unnoticed. All eyes are seduced by another, and as you turn your gaze to see who the center of attention is, you at once understand why. You can’t take your eyes off her either. You are captivated by the woman in the scarlet dress.

It’s not the best narrative, I know, but the only part that matters is the last sentence. Read the whole passage again, but replace the word “scarlet” with “lobster.” Then read it one more time, but put in “blood-red.” Based on that one word, any following events have already been deeply foreshadowed. With just one word!

Now before you point out that I’ve been claiming to be enamored with sentences as opposed to words, allow me to argue that this is still an example of context at work. Had I just listed off the words “scarlet,” “lobster” and “blood-red,” I doubt you would have conjured up a woman in a red dress in any case. However, by stating that there was a woman who was in a “_____” dress, each of these words now symbolizes the woman’s personality, your attitude towards the woman, the other guest’s attitudes towards the woman (were they staring because it was funny, or was it jealously?) and what events are around the corner. The sentence gave huge meaning to the word, and the word in turn gave huge meaning to the story. All of the words working together built a description of an idea.

So back to the perfect sentence. Instead of containing a soupy mix of rhetorical devices, perfection would dictate that each word only served to support every other word. We have long thought of writing as an art form, as painting a picture with the brush strokes of the alphabet. Yet to form the perfect sentence, I believe it’s necessary to shift our focus to engineering. Say you were to design a sentence. If every word were carefully placed so that it neither stood on its own nor was absent in giving meaning to all remaining words, then not only would you have an architectural wonder on your hands, you would have a perfect sentence.

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