The Complete Sentence


Life Sentence

In our new eight-part series, Life Sentence, the literary critic Jeff Dolven will take apart and put back together one beloved or bedeviling sentence every week. Tom Toro will illustrate each sentence Dolven chooses. 

Image © Tom Toro


What is a sentence? But that is such a formal question. How about, what is a sentence for? Less formal, perhaps, but obviously impossible to answer, for sheer variety. There may be some human purposes that don’t find their way into sentences, but writers keep trying, and for any limit we experience there may be a sentence in waiting and a writer to try it.

Nonetheless, embarking on what will be a set of eight meditations on the sentence—what it is, what it can be for or about—I’ll propose one purpose that all sentences have in common. The purpose of a sentence is to end. If this is a property of all sentences, any ought to do for an example, but here is one particularly determined to be done with itself:

1 The world is everything that is the case.

It comes from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as translated from German into English by C. K. Ogden in 1922. Beginning, as it does, with a capital letter (let’s ignore the number for the moment), and ending with a period, it advertises its own completeness. The completeness is grammatical: there is a subject and a verb, the minimum conditions, then a predicate nominative, and then a simple relative clause. It is also complete rhetorically, with the double “is” almost suggesting a palindrome, folding neatly in the middle. You could just about read it backward as well as forward. That wouldn’t be a good idea logically, but it asserts a certain self-containedness, a certain autonomy, which a sentence is supposed to have.

Autonomy: says who? Aristotle, for one, in his Rhetoric, where he says that a sentence is a complete thought. The definition has been repeated often since, by philosophers and English teachers, though really it only pushes the question back into the darkness of the mind. What is a complete thought? Why should a thought be complete? Why should a sentence mirror that completeness? Surely it is possible to imagine speech as a continuous self-narration, flowing through everybody’s works and days as a song for the stream of consciousness. Might that song not be truer to mental life? In a world without sentences, we could talk to one another in fluent duets, like they do in operas, or even interlock our words like gamelan players. Might not that world be a happier world to live in? We might kiss continuously, too, long, soundness embraces mouth to mouth, without the constant suction-punctuation of each discrete detachment, all those little betrayals to repair.

But that world is not Wittgenstein’s, and neither is it ours. Linguists tell us that all languages have sentences. They are the basic units of syntax. Cognitive scientists suggest that there is some correspondence between an individual sentence and discrete patterns of brain activity. Still, we may be as well served here by analogy as by scientific explanation. We take our kisses one by one, and we take turns in conversation, and a conversation is one of many successive events we distinguish in the course of a day. Even a day is discrete, punctuated by sunset and sleep. Afterward, at the period, you can rest or say farewell or start again. And reflect: hold what has just happened as a small whole, suspended out of time, in order to revolve it, reckon with it, understand it, react to it. What did you just say? (—What did I just say?) Each sentence has a double identity, as an event in time and as a bounded structure across which the mind travels freely in both directions. Its retrospect gives form to experience, form you can step away from, if only for a period’s worth of pause.

Of many ways to begin thinking about a sentence, this is the one I propose: it is defined by its completeness, with all the human meanings of completeness, and all the needs that the period meets and frustrates when it comes, late or soon. Wittgenstein’s sentence is preceded by a number that places it first in the Tractatus, where it is followed by many more, numbered sometimes to three dependent decimals. The first one is meant to be self-evident without quite being tautological; as best I understand, it establishes that the world is itself discrete, made up of what is the case, and not of what is not. The plainness of the statement and the simplicity of the thought fall somewhere between banality and enigma. Either way, their declaration of independence is apparent. It is tempting to recognize the same hermetic impulse in Wittgenstein himself, the Viennese émigré in Cambridge before the war, who often repaired to the isolation of a cabin in Norway to think these thoughts, in whatever order. Later, he would turn his back on this form of discrete, stepwise argument—arguably by the end of the Tractatus, certainly by the time of the Philosophical Investigations—in favor of a way of thinking that cannot conceive the grammar of a sentence outside of its form of life. One of those later sentences: “If a lion could talk, we wouldn’t be able to understand it.” But the dream of stepwise motion is strong in his Tractatus, and it illustrates as clearly, not to say starkly, as any linguistic performance could, how basic to the sentence is the promise that it will end before long. What better place to start?


Jeff Dolven’s poems first appeared in The Paris Review in 2000. He teaches at Princeton University, and his new book, Senses of Style—which looks at the work and lives of Thomas Wyatt and Frank O’Hara—will publish in January.

Tom Toro is an American cartoonist whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker, Playboy, The American Bystander, and elsewhere. His book of Trump cartoons, Tiny Hands, is available now through Dock Street Press.