Martin Hill Ortiz
The Greatest Sentence
I move my lips when I read a well-written sentence. It surprises me
is considered a hallmark of stupidity, as though I were still trapped
regressive state where I had to sound out syllables to discover
meaning. I am
mouthing the words as I consume them so I can assimilate them, to make
own. I am relishing the taste of good words.
The author Anne Dillard tells the story of a student who approached
and asked if he could ever be a writer. He is then challenged with the
question, "Do you like sentences?" I can not think of a better means to
writers from non-writers. A writer will immediately tremble and then
favorite sentences. A non-writer will be confused. "Sentences? I
like books. I like stories well-told. But sentences?" This latter group stands
in awe at
the dimensions of a cathedral. The former group is thrilled by how the
stacking of each brick transgresses gravity as buttresses fly, defying
heavens to create the heavenly.
For the writer, beyond the appreciation of reading a well-crafted
the desire to create the sentence that will make the angels laugh or
invoke a synchronous nod from the gods of literature, and curl a
smile on the lips of the constant reader. Do you like sentences? Do
What is the greatest sentence? To begin this quest, I must address
question: What makes a sentence great? That depends on its mission.
It can be
great because it conveys a timeless truth or a sums up a great
variety often fills books of quotes. Along with exemplary construction
"uh-huh" factor, the recognition of its wisdom.
"Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth."
"I am not young enough to know everything." Oscar Wilde.
Variants of these are those that owe their existence to other
quotes. They are equally quotable, even if they often devolve into
"The lion and the calf shall lie down together but the calf won't get
sleep." Woody Allen.
"Nowadays men lead lives of noisy desperation." James Thurber
"East is east and west is San Francisco." O. Henry
Dorothy Parker summarized the distinction between these forms: "Wit
in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words." Still, don't
underestimate calisthenics. This includes the powerful form of
known as chiasmus. Here a set of words are introduced and then their
reversed. This can reiterate a point, provide contrast through
or twist the thought in unexpected directions. Shakespeare's: "Fair
and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air." Or the comment
regards to the chance of finding a man in Alaska where single men
outnumber women: "The odds are good, but the goods are odd." Anonymous.
Which leads to the next observation. Many sentences are great because
context. Most sentences are servants, not masters. Their purpose is
support the larger structure. Even when the sentence becomes a grand
of all that was before it, it is diminished out of context. "He drew a
breath and said lightly but softly: 'My dear, I don't give a damn.'"
Margaret Mitchell. This declaration would be forgotten if it had come
some pot-boiler novel. It is great because it served its purpose
"These are the times that try men's souls." Thomas Payne. An elegant,
construction. Poetic. And yet it helps to know the times to which
"Jesus wept." A thrilling sentence of minimalist simplicity. But its
completed by knowing the gospel story.
"Buddha laughed." There is no scriptural mention of Jesus laughing.
the contrasting combination, "Jesus wept; Bhudda laughed," is an all
sentence. Checking Google, I find that a Reverend John Morehouse has
as the title for a sermon. I hope his sermon did it justice. "Buddha
Jesus wept." There, now it's mine. Although one's behavior shouldn't
as a comment on the other's.
Another of my personal favorites requires context. It is from the
Todd Anthony's review of Oliver Stone's Nixon: "Two master liars
I would argue that the greatest sentences ever are those that can
They do not require context or gymnastics for resonance. It is not the
they contain that elevates them. It is their elegant construction.
choices are unexpected and yet perfect. They have song and the voice
it. Often they are short, simple, and precise. Several examples, in
order of length:
"Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and
have swept over me." Psalm 42, NIV
"For a steep second she thought his gaze hummed; but it was only her
heard.." Thomas Harris
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking
"There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he deserved
"Shut up, he explained." Ring Lardner
Others among the greatest sentences are bulky. Although it is hard
intensity and focus over length, some styles don't require these
Beat poetry and stream-of-conscious can invoke great rambling rants.
Nonetheless, one can't help but feel that even great authors succumb to
self-indulgent audacity of the hopelessly long sentence. Victor Hugo
sentence of 823 words in Les Miserables, while Faulkner in Absalom,
a sentence of 1,300 words. Molly Bloom's soliloquy in Joyce's Ulysses
thirty pages. Finally, Jonathan Coe's The Rotters Club has a
clocking in at 13,000 words. No one is quoting these, at least not at
There are long-winded sentences that are worth every ounce of breath.
Ginsberg's "Howl" is 2031 words, crammed with kaleidoscopic
imagery. The opening to The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens,
in at 119 words, is brilliant in its construction, its word choice and
discovery of truth through contradictions. "It was the best of times,
the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of
was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the
Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was
winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before
were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way
short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of the
authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in
superlative degree of comparison only."
My pick for the greatest long sentence is from Malcolm Lowry's Under
Volcano. At 348 words, copyright privileges prevent me from quoting it
entirety. It begins: "It is a light blue moonless summer evening,"
continues, "while the floats, for there are timber diving floats, are
together, everything jostled and beautifully ruffled and stirred and
in this rolling sleeked silver," and concludes, "and then again, within
white white distant alabaster thunderclouds beyond the mountains, the
thunderless gold lightning in the blue evening...unearthly."
Which leaves my choice for the greatest sentence ever. It has all of
qualities of the previous choices: lightness and weight, music and
has a startling poetry and a resonant vision. At 46 words, it seems
From Lincoln's first inaugural address: "The mystic chords of memory,
stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living
hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the
when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our
"The rest is silence." Shakespeare
©2005 by Martin Hill Ortiz