Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Those impurities we call meaning

When I am marking students’ essays, one of the commonest things I write in the margin is ‘not a sentence’ – which of course is also not a sentence.

I love sentences. ‘And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax,’ writes Anthony Burgess in his novel Enderby Outside, ‘and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.’ Sentences are ways of shaping and reshaping the world, creating little universes of sense and meaningfulness. A sentence is a beautifully logical system of relationships in which, as Stanley Fish writes in his book How to Write a Sentence, ‘no word floats without an anchoring connection within an overall structure’.

In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tells a story about a fellow writer who taught creative writing at the same American college as her. She was asked by a student if she thought he could be a writer. Well, she replied, do you like sentences? Dillard says that she understood immediately what that meant (I’m not sure whether the student did): he was being told that ‘if he liked sentences he could begin’. She recalls a similar conversation with a friend who is a painter: ‘I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I like the smell of paint.”’ Sentences, in other words, are the raw material of writing – and if you don’t have a feel for them, you’re like a painter who can’t stand the smell of paint.

One of the problems I have with the managerialist language that has pervaded public institutions, including universities, over the last few years is that it is surely responsible for some of the ugliest sentences to have been crafted since the Phoenicians came up with that bright idea called the alphabet about 3000 years ago. These sentences seem to assume that writing is easy and straightforward – that just by welding together a few abstract nouns, passive constructions and verbless participles you are communicating with another human being. I would be tempted to say that this is what the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski called ‘phatic communication’ – communication just for the sake of it, with no meaningful content. But that’s being too kind. Really it is anti-communication, a combination of PR, bullshit and arse-covering that exhibits a profound mistrust of language and, by extension, social life.

Please don’t tell me that none of this matters and that worrying about the position of words in a sentence is just being picky. Who was it who said that all poets are pedants in disguise – or was it that all pedants are poets in disguise? To paraphrase Kenneth Tynan after he saw Look Back in Anger for the first time, I’m not sure I could love anyone who didn’t love sentences.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Management of what? Management for what? Management. Management. Management. The word sticks in one’s interface. Please excuse me if I dare to laugh, but I know that each age, even each decade, has its little cant word coiled up inside real discourse like a tiny grub in the middle of an apple.’ – Dennis Potter

1 comment:

  1. Hear, hear, and Anthony Burgess's sentence is a particularly lovely example of the craft.
    thanks for your thoughts