I'm not quite as concerned about the impending demise of the sentence as James Billington seems to be in this article from last Sunday's Washington Post, but the "creeping inarticulateness" that he speaks of is certainly apparent everywhere. I confess that I still find it shocking that in the early discussions of the definition of "Library 2.0" there were many proponents of the term who argued that it didn't matter, or that it was even preferable, that we not have a clear definition of the term, that it's very vagueness was actually an advantage. That librarians, society's guardians of knowledge, were saying this, still depresses me.
One sees a similar attitude among some bloggers who describe their posts as "just getting my thoughts out", or "trying out ideas", or "just doing rough drafts" -- as if ideas and the language they're expressed in are somehow separable.
I first began to appreciate the beauty and critical importance of sentences from reading the great short story artist Harold Brodkey, who was absolutely manic and obsessive in his devotion to getting each sentence right -- the right words, the right tone, the right balance, the right music. All of those carry meaning, and if one element is off, the writing fails.
As an editor, one of my roles was to pay a lot of attention to sentences. I recall many instances where I would spend a considerable amount of time on a single paragraph, going over it again and again, trying to sort out exactly what the author was really trying to say. The challenge then was to come up with alternatives that maintained the tone and voice of the author, while clarifying and conveying the actual meaning. It would be easy enough to rewrite it to sound like me -- but I always wanted it to sound like the original writer. That's what makes an editor.
Those who see "publishing" as simply a matter of doing some kind of peer review, clarifying some of the facts & conclusions, and then putting things up on a website, miss the importance of that kind of editing. A well edited article carries the reader along -- it feels effortless. Without it, reading becomes a chore. How many ideas never get the distribution that they deserve because the prose they're encased in makes reading just too damn much work?
Language is dynamic, of course, and I don't consider the shorthands and emoticons that are used in chats and tweets and texts to be evidence of the degradation of the written language. They're useful and often quite clever ways to convey simple meanings within certain technological constraints. But they're a very thin thread to hang complex meaning on.
As I grow older, the notion of "story" becomes increasingly important to me. I was talking to someone about the presentation that I was working on for Scotland. "I've got the arc of the story figured out, now it's just a matter of pulling together the images that I want to illustrate it, and making sure the transitions work the way that I want them to." I always think of a presentation as telling a story, as having a plot, as requiring a certain flow to take the listener from beginning to end. The Post writer makes the point, "The sentence itself is a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Something happens in a sentence."
I often get compliments on my writing, and I'm grateful for that. But it's quite simple, really. The first thing I try to do is write good sentences.