On Beautiful Sentences

I’m making 2022 the year of beautiful sentences—the year of noticing beautiful sentences.

What is a beautiful sentence? It’s easy to say I know what a beautiful sentence is, but it’s harder to explain. After all, each of our definitions of beauty is slightly different than the next person’s. So, how to advise?

A grammatically complete sentence has two parts: a subject and a predicate (also known as a verb). We know how you can add things on and express thoughts that are ever more complex. You can add meaning to a sentence by layering on clauses like adding stacks to a wedding cake.

That’s not to say that all writers always use complete sentences all the time. (In writing, as in many things, there are “rules” that can be broken.) There are beautiful sentences that some would consider sentence fragments and therefore incomplete. There are beautiful sentences that some would consider run-on sentences. The longest sentence in English literature, for example, goes to Jonathan Coe in The Rotters’ Club. It’s 13,955 words. Some sentences simply exist to push ideas. For example, Gertrude Stein’s work has been expressed as the literature version of Cubism in art.

Francine Prose argues that when communicating, “nothing is more important than clarity.” (At least if clarity is what you’re going for.)

I do think it’s worthwhile to read not only Prose’s thoughts on clarity but also her thoughts on the sentence that appear in her book Reading Like a Writer. Talking words and sentences and how authors go about making what seems like a series of small decisions, Prose reminds us, is like “talking shop”. It can be extremely important for a writer to go deep, to think about the clay—the words and sentences and paragraphs—that we use to express our ideas by way of words on paper. But it’s not just clarity, is it?

But there is something innate in humans in regards to noticing beauty, in noticing a beautiful sentence. If there’s something wrong, most of us feel it. Like music, we know when a phrase works or when it sounds “off”. Sometimes, on purpose. You don’t strictly need a solid foundation of English grammar rules to notice beauty (but they do help you to become a better writer by letting you make the conscious decision whether to adhere to the rules or not). Just like we feel beauty. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know this is poetry.” (As referenced in The Letters of Emily Dickinson.)

The best, most beautiful sentences move us. They allow us to experience a feeling or thought or fact. This is not only with clarity but with complete physical sensation. A word, after all, doesn’t derive meaning from its sound alone, but because we all know to what the word is referring. I think about the way our brains store information—so that we have to open up memories and recreate them in order to remember again. In this way, an experience of beauty is always new and appreciated as though it were the first time. Every time. (Sentence fragment.)

I still don’t know how to tell you about beauty, except that when I read a beautiful sentence I am lost in it—I live in it for a moment. Aram Mrjoian references the gut reaction to beautiful prose or “the moment of paused breathing, deep exhalation, and audible sighing at the wonder of words.”

That’s how I feel it, too. And in 2022 and beyond—I want more of that.