Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Composition 2: the sentence

[This post is part of the "Working Week" series.]

In a sentence, words are put together grammatically in your attempt to mean something by them. In isolation, words don't mean anything very specific; they do not convey a clear meaning. In fact, until a group of letters is positioned among other words, it is unclear even what language it belongs to. The word "hat" refers to something you wear on your head in English but is a form of the verb "to have" in German. A word really only finds its meaning in the context of a sentence, and here its meaning is determined by usage, which is the governing principle of grammatical correctness (Grierson 1944: 94). That is why the way you construct your sentences goes a long way towards defining your style. What is often called "accepted usage" by grammarians and editors determines the effect that particular words have in particular combinations and in particular settings. The style of your composition, as you try to get the words to mean what you want to say, is your struggle with what usage would have your words mean before you started using them. This struggle takes place first and foremost within the sentences you write.

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