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History of the Sentence

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Ian Robinson's The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1998) is a fascinating discussion of the history of the sentence and of English punctuation, and, despite its heavy-handed title, is a delight to read.

Does the sentence have a history? Robinson shows that it does. Even in our day, when the well-formed sentence is described as the key to prose writing, there are many intelligible uses of language that do not employ well-formed sentences - lists, lecture notes, football broadcasts. (Robinson is not an opponent of the well-formed sentence; his are wonderful; but he recognizes that it is not the only possible unit of sense.)

Prior to the modern period, Robinson argues, the sentence was not recognized as a syntactical unit at all: "Medieval grammar, following the classical tradition, was of course highly developed, but there never emerged in the medieval period any conception of the sentence as syntactical unit." The word "sentence" is used in the Middle Ages, but means something like "sense" or "gist." "Thou speakest sentences" says a character in Ben Jonson's Poetaster, and he does not mean that someone "is speaking dramatically but that he is speaking sense and, in particular, uttering weighty, authoritative dicta."

Punctuation likewise has a history. Spaces between words were apparently well-known in antiquity, but it became a Greek fashion to write continuously, a fashion that some Roman writers unforuntately adopted. Punctuation marks are evident on medieval texts, but prior to the Renaissance there is no "hint in the discussions of punctuation by the grammarians that punctuation was thought to have anything like the syntactical function of the modern full point or semi-colon." Punctuation in the Middle Ages had a more rhetorical purpose, providing cues about the cadences and rhythms of oral performance or an imagined voice during silent reading.

This is a rich and careful study, and holds important implications for modern thought and culture. What does it do to our thought processes to make the sentence the center of style and meaning? Could there be analytic philosophy without the prior triumph of the sentence? And how is the development of the sentence related to the modern dominance of prose over poetry? Robinson touches on a number of these issues, as in this comment: "The syntactically well-formed third person present or past indicative active sentence, making propositions about objects in the external world, suggests what, with great refinement, goes on in physics. The birth of modern science was not accidentally contemporary with the new style and the new grammar. But still, it was not quite the same thing."

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Thursday, November 24, 2005 at 08:28 AM

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