Thursday 6 June 2024

Teaching sentences, but what is a sentence? What's happened to 'the sentence'? Does it matter?

 When we think of written English in education, we instinctively think of sentences. It's what I was taught, my children have been taught, and is still taught. The sentence used to be defined as having a 'main clause' within which is a 'finite verb'. It begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop.

It doesn't take much research to see that an enormous amount of writing is done that is not with these 'sentences'. Spend a little time looking at advertisements, headlines, film scripts, plays, poems, song lyrics, powerpoints, signs, slogans, proverbs and even in novels and newspaper articles written in standard English. Perhaps even more widespread is the field of social media where people chat to each other all day every day in a form of writing that has evolved and is evolving without instruction, direction or examinations. For much of the time, people are not bothered about 'main clauses' and 'finite verbs'. 

There's an argument for saying that the sentence in the modern world is still the means by which power is enacted. Powerful people pass laws, rule in courts, run companies, produce news reports, and science journals are written - in sentences. It follows, the argument says, that education should teach sentences in order that everyone has access to that power. This is true. 

The question arises though as to what we teach when we teach 'language'. Do we teach the sentence, or do we say that there are many varieties of written language (English in this case)? And though the sentence is the language of the powerful, the power is enacted through longer passages of writing - the paragraph, the page, the chapter, the article, the book etc? So we have to teach 'cohesion' and 'coherence', 'genre' and 'audience'. 

And more than that, do we say that there are hugely lucrative careers in the world of the non-sentence: song-writing, copy-writing for advertisements, writing film scripts and TV scripts and plays, lists and notes we write for ourselves or others,  producing punchy powerpoints and so on? There's even an argument for saying that writing quick, sharp, to-the-point social media has huge social value too.

I'll leave that hanging.

In the meantime, here are just a few examples of non-sentences and/or sentences that are not displayed or punctuated in the traditional way.

Train for a 

job you love

job you love

job you love

job you love

[Fashion Retail Academy ad]


in front

is all you

But the 



On Side






Sofa. Heaven.

Near Angel

(As you'd expect.)


Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,

The cow jumped over the moon.

The little dog laughed to see such sport

And the dish ran away with the spoon.

[The first line is interesting because it seems to be unattached grammatically.]


How, how, how, how? Chopped logic! What is this?155“Proud,” and “I thank you,” and “I thank you not,”And yet “not proud”? Mistress minion you,Thank me no thankings, nor proud me no prouds,But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday nextTo go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,160Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.Out, you green sickness, carrion! Out, you baggage!You tallow face!
[Romeo and Juliet]

‘Fog’ from

Bleak House

by Charles Dickens


Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Loyle Carner

Ain’t Nothing Changed

Check, I'm saying ain't nothing changed

Trust, 'cause ain't nothing changed

Saying, ain't nothing changed

Nah, 'cause ain't nothing changed

I'm saying ain't nothing changed

Uh, uh, I'm saying ain't nothing changed

Brother, 'cause ain't nothing changed

Saying, ain't nothing changed

Nah, 'cause ain't nothing changed

Trust, 'cause ain't nothing changed

Stream of consciousness

from Molly Bloom’s monologue last chapter Ulysses by James Joyce

let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so as I can get up early Ill go to Lambes there beside Findlaters and get them to send us some flowers to put about the place in case he brings him home tomorrow today I mean no no Fridays an unlucky day first I want to do the place up someway the dust grows in it I think while Im asleep then we can have music and cigarettes I can accompany him first I must clean the keys of the piano with milk whatll I wear shall I wear a white rose or those fairy cakes in Liptons I love the smell of a rich big shop at 7 1/2d a lb or the other ones with the cherries in them and the pinky sugar 11d a couple of lbs of those a nice plant for the middle of the table Id get that cheaper in wait wheres this I saw them not long ago I love flowers Id love to have the whole place swimming in roses God of heaven theres nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and the waves rushing then the beautiful country with the fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours springing up even out of the ditches primroses and violets nature it is as for them saying theres no God I wouldnt give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why dont they go and create something I often asked him atheists or whatever they call themselves go and wash the cobbles off themselves first then they go howling for the priest and they dying and why why because theyre afraid of hell on account of their bad conscience ah yes I know them well who was the first person in the universe before there was anybody that made it all who ah that they dont know neither do I so there you are they might as well try to stop the sun from rising tomorrow the sun shines for you he said 

Stream of consciousness plus ‘free indirect discourse’ 

from ‘To the Lighthouse’ Virginia Woolf

Nothing happened. Nothing! Nothing! as she leant her head against Mrs. Ramsay's knee. And yet, she knew knowledge and wisdom were stored up in Mrs. Ramsay's heart. How, then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people. Mrs. Ramsay rose. Lily rose. Mrs. Ramsay went. For days there hung about her, as after a dream some subtle change is felt in the person one has dreamt of, more vividly than anything she said, the sound of murmuring and, as she sat in the wicker arm-chair in the drawing-room window she wore, to Lily's eyes, an august shape; the shape of a dome.

Very recent popular novel. First person narrative by Joyce. 

(Note non standard sentences)

from ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ by Richard Osman (2020)

pages 18-19

Elizabeth and Penny would go through every file, line by line, study every photograph, read every witness statement, just looking for anything that had been missed. They didn’t like to think there were guilty people still happily going about their business. Sitting in their gardens, doing a sudoku, knowing they had got away with murder.


Ibrahim soon joined them.  He used to play bridge with Penny, and had helped them out once or twice with bits and bobs. He’s a psychiatrist. Or was a psychiatrist. Or still is, I’m not quite sure. When you first meet him you can’t see that at all, but once you get to know him it makes a sort of sense. I would never have therapy, because who wants to unravel all that knitting? Not worth the risk, thank you.



Written by Brandon Saunders 

Final Draft 


A modest home in the outskirts of town. 

MAN 1, wears a PORCELAIN MASK and all WHITE CLOTHES, sprinkled with blood. He closes the trunk to a BLACK CAR parked in the drive-way. 

YOUNG BOY (O.S.) (muffled) No! Light 

THUMPS and CRIES come from inside the trunk. Man 1 makes his way inside -- 


Cozy. Furniture screams good taste. Boxing gloves hang on the wall next to a BOXING TROPHY and numerous GOLD MEDALS. A NEWSPAPER on the kitchen bench headlines: "Boxing upset has Punters furious." 

Man 1 joins 3 MEN playing poker. He sits to the right of: DAD, 30, clean cut. Bruised and beaten. Tears slide down his face, as he stares daggers across the table to the man with majority of the chips: GAMBLING MAN, 45, sinister smirk. Wears a BLACK SUIT. In his right hand, he holds a King of hearts and Nine of diamonds. He squeezes a STRESS BALL with his left. To his right: DEALER, too, all WHITE CLOTHES and PORCELAIN MASK. 


I told you to tighten his gag, not read him a fucking lullaby. Dad slams his cards face down. 

Stands abruptly.



I’ve got three cookies

Interviewer gave them to me. Home made

Shhhh don’t tell Joni



Ho ho

En route


Am outside

On corner






Passing ally p Stn



Rail strike

Still stuck?




Slow stuck


By the park

Heading for round


I have many other examples from texts, tweets, newspaper articles, poems, songs, film scripts and fiction but rather than put them up for the moment, perhaps this is an area that language students might be interested in researching.