The Laws of Simple Sentences


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. Read earlier installments of Life Sentence here

Image © Tom Toro

A sentence has to be complete to be a sentence. It also has to be correct. “The trees wave.” That will certainly do: it has a subject and a predicate, a simple arrangement and a simple image. The grammarians’ demand for formal completeness dates back only to the middle of the seventeenth century, and so it is much younger than the ancient idea of a complete thought. The syntactic pattern underneath is older than both, and most linguists today take it to be the activation of a language faculty that has evolved over tens of thousands of years. That there is a law in this sentence, wherever it lies, is apparent any time we try to break it. “The trees”: is that a sentence? No. We are left hanging, wondering what the trees are or do or suffer. How about “Wave”? No, if it is supposed to be an indicative verb, what the trees do. (Yes, however, if it is an imperative, predicate to the implied subject “you.” No again, if it is a noun.)

I want to feel the law in this simple sentence, its solace and its limits. Cutting it up is one way to test it; changing the order of the words is another. What about, “Wave the trees”? In Latin, and other inflected languages, it is possible to say, Arbores vibrant or, Vibrant arbores, because the syntactic role of each word is defined by its ending. Arbores will play the same role wherever you put it. This versatility made generations of early English poets chronically jealous of their classical forbears, but over time, subject-verb-object word order became canonical. If you want to sound particularly orotund and old-fashioned, you can still muse, in a prophetic, Tennysonian quaver, “Wave the trees, flow the rivers.” Such obsolete syntactic forms tend to linger in poetic diction. But “wave the trees,” in any modern context—if the trees are supposed to be the subject—is just wrong. The law is strong, even natural. “The trees wave,” then; there really is no other good way to say it.

The trees I am talking about are Virginia Woolf’s, from The Waves (1931), about forty pages in:

The trees wave, the clouds pass.

The speaker is Louis, one of six friends whom the novel follows from childhood; he is a banker’s son from Adelaide, set apart from the others by his middle-class and colonial origin. The speaker, I say, though anyone who has read the novel knows how difficult it can be to tell the speakers apart in Woolf’s confluent fugue of voices. Her characters are swept to and fro by urgencies of company and solitude, of solidarity and autonomy. At the moment Louis speaks these words, or thinks them—most of the novel is inside someone or other’s head—they are all sitting together on the grass, and he allows himself to fantasize that “the time will come when all these soliloquies shall be shared.” He says something simple to himself, to fix the moment. “The trees wave, the clouds pass.” Such a plain sentence bids to grasp the experience more tightly than the vagrant ruminations around it. What is more shared, after all, than such basic grammar? It is the common law at the bottom of speech.

But of course it is not quite a simple sentence, is it?—or if it is, it is two of them. The grammar in each clause is the same. (Like a sentence, a clause has subject and predicate; it can stand on its own.) The hinge is a comma, which lifts the pitch of the inner voice for a moment before the second clause descends to the tonic. Two kinds of motion animate Louis’s mind as he thinks these two clauses, first the bending of the trees in the wind, to and fro, and then the drifting across the sky of the clouds. If the reader’s mind drifts evenly across the sentence, the impression is of similarity. The wind is behind them both, trees and clouds. The trees, however, are fixed; they wave because the wind carries the branches out to their limits, and then they rebound and their leaves dance. The clouds, by contrast, keep moving. In the passage from waving to passing, is there a hint of a greeting unreturned? A farewell, a drifting apart? If so, it is a small prophecy of the novel’s plot. The order of the two clauses matters, given Louis’s hope that “this will endure.” The passing clouds have the last word.

Which is not to say that there is any law against reversing them. “The clouds pass, the trees wave.” This is a different sentence, but not an illegal one, not the way the intransitive “wave the trees” would be. We have come to the limits of what grammar will dictate, and other laws, less scrutable and less fair, take over. In Louis’s sentence there is a bare appeal to grammar-as-nature, compliance with the rules of construction at their minimum. But his sighing comma is not grammatical, really, since it puts two clauses together that could just as well be parsed by two periods, and whatever relation obtains between two sentences is beyond grammar’s reach. Enter logic, rhetoric, poetics. With that comma, Woolf releases the sentence into the hazards of choice, of constructions that might be otherwise. The shimmer of alternatives is a basic property of a literary sentence, and all the pathos, and beauty, of this one—in its poignant minimalism—lies in the possibility that it might have run the other way and the fact that it does not. All our soliloquies share grammar, but from there they must diverge.


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.