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.
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.) Read More