What's a sentence?


sen·tence  noun.
Origin - Middle English through Old French, from Latin ‘sententia’, present participle of ‘sentīre’ (to feel).
In grammar - a syntactically independent unit with a subject and a predicate that contains at least one finite verb.
In linguistics - a sequence of words capable of standing alone as an assertion, a question, or a command.
In philosophy - a well-formed expression, without variables.
Archaic - a proverb, maxim, or aphorism.
Obsolete - an opinion, especially one given formally after deliberation.
In Nepali - ‘baakya’ (from Sanskrit ‘vaakya’)
And you thought you knew what a sentence was. But there’s more. It also has special meanings in music, and in law.

Grammatically speaking, a sentence is defined broadly, literally, as any written text between two periods. A sentence should accomplish one of three things: as a narrative to make a statement, or tell a story or anecdote, etc.; as an interrogative to question or inquire; and as a hortative to urge, plead or command (an exhortation or hortatory).

With a good imagination, the photo of the men carrying a suspension bridge cable looks something like a long sentence. No, it’s not penance for a crime; rather, think of it as a string of words between two ends, written or spoken, which includes at least one noun and one verb. The abundance of men/words give it strength and interest, though sometimes a more simple sentence may be more powerful. The shortest sentence - “I am” - is a strong but simple declarative statement

The photo is from a bygone era, a time before motor roads penetrated the Nepal hills, a time (the early 1980s) when gangs of men carried carry long cables to bridge construction sites. Over 20 men were hauling this steel hawser up the Kali Gandaki River valley through Parbat District, west of Pokhara. The heavy cable was folded back three times and carried on the men’s shoulders.

Like the first sentence in good writing, the lead is critical. The cable team leader, for example, sets the pace and directs everything steadily onward. When it is time to rest, he shouts instructions loud enough to be heard at the back of the line. Then, on command, in unison, the men lift the cable off their shoulders and lay it on the ground. To start up again after a rest the action is reversed.

Working together, men in the line like words in a sentence make a statement, moving forward to get the job done. Cable carriers and good sentences have a lot in common, each with a specific goal. But note, just as you hire only enough men to do a job −

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” (William Strunk, Jr, co-author with E.B. White, of ‘The Elements of Style’, a succinct little book on good writing)

The leader should be strong, just as -

“The first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human. Meander if you want to get to town.” (Michael Ondaatje, Sri Lanka-born Canadian novelist, past winner of the Booker Prize)

And each is well-paced, working harmoniously to accomplish the task. The work gang leader asks questions similar to those of the writer −

“A scrupulous writer in every sentence that he writes will ask himself.. What am I trying to say? What words will express it?... And he probably asks himself... Could I put it more shortly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing open your mind and letting the ready-made phrases come crowing in. They will construct your sentences for you.” (George Orwell, India-born British novelist)
And whether it’s with workers or with words, it’s all teamwork.