Concerned about the size of small sentences? They work

Concerned about the size of small sentences? They work
Source: Reusableart.com

I’m enjoying noticing the variety of lengths of sentences in many things I read. When I’m writing, I like to think of them as “Bond laughed” sentences. That’s because years ago, when the James Bond film “The Living Daylights” (known to my friends and family as “the one with the girl cellist in it”) came out, I kept reading that star Timothy Dalton was taking the movies back to what Ian Fleming’s stories had been.

The more I read that, the more I went to the library and looked for some of Fleming’s books. (It was easy — the movies at that point used the titles of the books.) In many difficult situations, Fleming wrote long, sweeping descriptions of the villain’s lair, the difficult plan he was enacting, and the horrible things James Bond was going to have to endure to get out of the trap.

Then there was another sentence: “Bond laughed.” Sometimes the next sentence described just what the laugh sounded like and how it helped 007 get his mind straight to outdo his opponent.

When I’m working on editing my novel, a post, or even a job application, I try to remember the impact of changing from a long description to that two-word, noun-verb sentence. It is a jolt I enjoy causing as much as I enjoy reading it.

It works.

I’m finding some of these short sentences in yet another of the books from my dad’s collection, Thomas Levenson’s “Einstein in Berlin.” It’s as much a study of the city as of the man, with his work explained in the context of what was happening in the city in the early years of the 20th century.

Now and then, Levenson describes what Einstein thought of a particular person or policy. After a long description of what a friendship was like, I’m likely to find “He was wrong.” (That’s a startling sentence in itself when it comes to Albert Einstein.) After several long sentences describing a theory — Einstein’s or someone else’s — I’ve found “It worked.” It’s a funny feeling, thinking of the post-World War II adventures of agent 007 when I’m reading a history with Albert Einstein as the main subject.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s lost a bit of the ability to watch for people’s reactions in this era of phone calls and Zoom conferences. But I do have to talk to people at times, and I’m getting back to more of it now that my home church has reopened. So I am trying to listen to my answers and watch reactions to get back in practice.

If someone says “May I ask you a question?,” I may just try “You did.” At least it gets a reaction quickly, the better to speed up my practice.

I love good details as much as the next person, if not more. But sometimes, a change of pace and fewer details brighten things up. Try it.

Filed under: Expressions, Writing

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  • 1. When i saw the headline, I thought it was about The Eonomist on Why life without parole is nearly always too long.

    2. Penultimate paragraph: Similar are the various "do you know" questions, such as "do you know what time it is?" "Do you know your license plate number?", etc., to which the answer is "yes." Less trite are questions in the form "Do you know how [injury] happened?" to which my response is "If I knew, I wouldn't have done that." Similar to the last is "Where would you like the insulin shot?" to which my response is "I don't LIKE the shot, bit I'll take it in the belly."

    3. Your challenge is to find a subject and verb in one. Exclamations don't count.

  • In reply to jack:

    As always, Jack, thanks for your well-considered reply. Anyone who can get the word "penultimate" out for some exercise is doing fine in my book. My dad was the sort of teacher who would answer "Do you have a pencil I can borrow?" by telling the student "Yes" and waiting for the more useful question, "May I borrow it?" So I've been interested in accurate questions for most of my life.
    As for the double meaning of sentences, remember that this little corner of Chicago Now is about words and languages, not (necessarily) the justice system. I'll focus far more often on the grammatical sort of sentence.
    As for finding a subject and verb in one, I don't think I see where you picked that up. I can't think of a suitable one to fit your definition, and I wasn't thinking of it earlier. Please drop me a line if you find it.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I had brought it up because the minimum of 2 immediately came to mind, but I also felt that couldn't be the end of it, although swear words and exclamations don't count. I didn't have any particular word in mind.

  • In reply to jack:

    OK, thank you. Now I'm not so sure about a minimum of two whats, but that's all right.

  • John 11:35 -- "Jesus wept" was always a powerful statement.

    As for subject and verb in one word, hmmm -- gerunds present themselves as possibilities. Non-gerund "ing" words (e.g., "weaponizing") as single sentences? Meh. I keep running into problem of them just being sentence fragments.

    As for life without parole, I take in the Economist, and I too found layers of comedy in the sentence (no pun intended) without reference to the court system.

  • In reply to Grundoon:

    I happened to come across a paper copy of it (which is why my interpretation of the headline immediately came to mind), and noticed that in addition to the spellings, the sentence structure it uses is unfamiliar to me, resulting in me searching for ambiguities.

  • In reply to jack:

    Ah yes -- the U.K.-based Economist can be a good example of "divided by a common language."

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I always wondered why the Brits don't speak English, ironic as that is. It's the same type of twisted logic I used when, watching a Rick Steves show, I concluded that one can get Chicago food in Athens.

  • In reply to jack:

    You're surely pulling my leg, Jack. We speak the American version of English. The British speak English. By the way, I went to "The Chicago Pizza Company" in London in 1983, and sat near a framed Stan Mikita jersey to ease my homesickness. The pizza was digestible, but nothing to recommend to my Midwestern friends when I got home. It's like trying to offer our Italian beef sandwich to someone from Italy -- who's never seen one.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    The last sentence was in point, but not my point. In Athens, the street vendor carts didn't say Chicago Gyros or Chicago Souvlaki. But Steves didn't show Chicgo Hot Dogs, even though the 7 topping version is traceable back to Greeks.

    To your point, elsewhere in the US, an Italian Beef is called a Chicago Beef, but is usually served soggy.

    If you want to get into food linguistics, I know a place that serves garbanzo hummus and garbanzo Italian saad, even though the proper terms are chickpea and ceci,

  • In reply to Grundoon:

    Thank you, Grundoon. I have read fiction in which a young character starts feeling confident in her memory because she could memorize a Bible verse, and it's John 11:35. Note the long sentence before it, with the accusation "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." (That's not all of it, but long enough in itself.)

    The only way I can think of "ing words" alone in sentences is in conversations about thinking of a word: "Pounding with one of those electric hammer things that can break pavement -- what's that called?"

    "Jackhammering."

    Like so.

    As for layers of comedy, well, being Serious about words can allow for layers of all sorts of stuff. Thanks, as ever.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    John 11:35 in the Vulgate version (St. Jerome;s translation into Latin):

    Et lacrimatus est Jesus.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Twice as many words! But I see the roots of "Jesus wept."

  • Pointed, concise and charming piece.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you. I try my best.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    And that's pretty darn good, indeed, my friend.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Shucks. Thank you.

  • You mentioned your reaction when someone asks “May I ask you a question?” When someone asks me something like, "Would you like a cup of coffee?" I'm tempted to say to one not likely to take offense, "Are you offering or conducting a survey?" It is not as concise as a two-word "You did," but it does capture attention--or at least puzzlement.

  • In reply to jnorto:

    I like that, jnorto! Sometimes, when I'm buying milk and juice, or some combination of juices, and little else, I've been known to shake a cashier out of an automatic "How are you?" by answering "Thirsty." Having been in those tired shoes, I like the chance and the change of a small chat.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    That's about the same as someone in a doctor's office asking if you are o.k., to which the response is why do you think I'm here?

  • In reply to jack:

    I once checked in at my general doctor's office to see him about a hip problem. The nurse got the information and said "You can sit down." I told her no, I couldn't, but I'd wait.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    "Thirsty." Is there no way to call that a one-word sentence? I know that it can be called a fragment, but the subject is directly established by the question asked, "How are you?" Just trying....

  • In reply to jnorto:

    I think of it as an interjection, even though the word "interjection" still has me singing its definition from TV's "Schoolhouse Rock" -- "Interjections/show emotion/or excitement/Hallelujah! Hallelujah!"
    If you don't think of me saying thirsty as showing emotion or excitement, then you haven't seen me in the recent heat waves.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I don't want the press a losing argument too far, but what if I were to say to you, "Answer yes or no, did the sun set yesterday?" Would your one-word answer be a fragment, an interjection, or something else?

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Coming from me, especially in light of this discussion, my answer would be "Yes, jnorto, it did." That's a complete sentence. As for just a plain old yes, I'm not sure. Considering the enduring interest, I think I see a topic for a new post!

  • In reply to jnorto:

    As you recognized, that"s another case where certain parts of the sentence (here both the subject and verb) are implied. The full sentence would be "I am thirsty," but the interrogator is only interested in the adjective.

    The bigger conundrum is whether the one word answer from the doc of "How are you?" is "good" (adj) or "well" (adv), although if the question were "how are you feeling?" would be "well.' In most cases, one wouldn't say "I am well."

  • In reply to jack:

    "I am well" refers to health; "I am good" is more behavior or theology, depending on your perspective. Similarly, "feeling well" should be used in the sense of not being numb. If you are hearing well, your ears are in working order; if you are feeling well, your skin (touch receptors) are in working order. I need to stretch out before I leave my desk because one of my feet isn't feeling well. If I don't get it back to at least pins and needles, I could fall over.

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Yes, it is a one-word sentence, with the subject understood. The smallest of small sentences.

  • The August National Geographic has an interesting piece on the Roman Gladiators. The author begins the piece on the sandy ground of a Roman amphitheater in Arles, France.

    "The gladiator helmet I've just put on, though, is stifling. A replica of the head protection worn by a Roman gladiator almost 2,000 years ago, the dented scratched helmet weighs more than 13 pounds---three times as heavy as a football helmet, and far less comfortable. It has a tangy metallic smell, as though I've put my head inside a sweaty penny.

    Through the bronze grate covering my eyes, I can make out a pair of men in loincloths warming up for a fight. Metal armguards jingle as one bounces on the balls of his feet, his stubby, hooked sword clutched in a leather-gloved hand. As I shift uncomfortably, his partner lifts his sword and offers to hit me in the head, just to demonstrate how solid the helmet is.

    I shrug. Anything for a story, right? Then their trainer, a deeply tanned, wiry Frenchman named Brice Lopez, intervenes. "He's not trained for it," Lopez says sharply. "He doesn't have the muscles. You'd snap his neck."

    Did you notice the small sentence in the excerpt? Makes your point, I'd say.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Seem descriptive, but not that short. But if the helmet were not that heavy, the gladiator would get the point in the eye.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    He shrugged. I grinned. Thank you for a beautiful example of my point.

  • "I shrug."
    -------------------------------------------
    Nope. That is a sentence fragment. My eighth-grade English teacher would rap my knuckles if I called that a complete sentence. If she was in a good mood one might get away with "I shrugged," but even then she might hiss at me.

  • In reply to Grundoon:

    I'm not sure why that's bad, unless there is an objection that the object "my shoulders" is implied. Merriam-Webster says
    intransitive verb
    : to raise or draw in the shoulders especially to express aloofness, indifference, or uncertainty

    transitive verb
    : to lift or contract (the shoulders) especially to express aloofness, indifference, or uncertainty

    So, in the first instance, the object would be redundant.

    Compare the "Jesus cried." Tears? Blood? The Latin is more descriptive.

  • In reply to jack:

    In this verse, Jack, Jesus was crying tears -- his good friend Lazarus has just died and been buried, and his friend's sister is saying "If you had been here, my brother would not have died." Definitely a sad time, and a very human one (as many of my pastors have pointed out over the years).

  • In reply to Grundoon:

    I accept either "shrug" or "shrugged," forms of the same verb, as part of a complete, short sentence. Noun verb(ed). I would have gotten in some interesting fights with your teacher, Grundoon.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I didn't think that was Grundoon's point, but does go back to the news media's abuse of present tense.

  • In reply to Grundoon:

    For whatever reason, the author wanted the present tense. Sometimes, even if the action took place in the past, the present tense is used to give a sense of an immediate reaction.

    Grundoon, it is a sentence; it has a subject and a predicate. That's all you need to have a sentence.

  • " I would have gotten in some interesting fights with your teacher, Grundoon."
    --------------------------------------------
    You'd have had to be very careful in your fight, Margaret, she was a veritable battle axe.

  • In reply to Grundoon:

    That's OK, Grundoon. I was a challenging student myself -- both of my parents were teachers.

  • As a sidebar, I taught English grammar for 35 years. But I never used a battle-axe. Just the same, the expression does go well with "Gladiators".

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Indeed it does go well, AW. Thank you for adding your expertise.

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