Theory of Sentence Composing

In his Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, Francis Christensen said, “I want them [students] to become sentence acrobats, to dazzle by their syntactic dexterity. I’d rather have to deal with hyperemia than anemia” (p. 137). Sentence composing provides necessary and sufficient acrobatic training. All four sentence composing techniques–unscrambling, imitating, combining, expanding–use literature as a school for writing with a faculty of professional writers. The course the faculty brilliantly teaches is crucial to students’ success as writers: what Christensen called “syntactic dexterity.”

Also in his Notes Toward a New Rhetoric Christensen advocated an integration of literature, writing, and grammar: “What I am proposing,” he claimed, “carries over of itself into the study of literature. It makes the student a better reader of literature. It helps him thread the syntactical mazes of much mature writing, and it gives him insight into that elusive thing we call style” (p. 137). Through sentence composing activities, students increase their understanding of, and consequent skill in, both literature and writing.

In the past, teachers neglected the sentence as a way to teach writing, using sentences instead as specimens for dissection, not as models for imitation. Only paragraphs, essays, stories were used as models. After reading those longer models, students were told by their teachers, “Go, thou, and do likewise.” Utterly unbreachable, the gap between the long professional model and the student’s grasp of it was too wide, and so students were doomed to fail. The reach far exceeded the grasp.

With sentence composing, the gap sharply narrows because the model is graspable: it is only one sentence long. Students here, too, are told, “Go, thou, and do likewise.” But this time they succeed, often amazingly, students ranging from our most challenged to our most challenging. Here, with only a single sentence as the model, and with frequent imitation activities through the four sentence composing techniques, students are certain to succeed.

In the past, the sentence was used as an object of analysis, resulting in literary paralysis–the kind of activities I long ago inflicted on Barry and the other captive charges in my classroom. “The Barry Story” illustrates the stunted growth of those students from my misguided grammar unit. I had thought that dissection of sentences would lead to improved sentences, that “knowing” would result in “doing.” Nothing much happened.

Sentence composing reverses the order, on the assumption that “doing” results in “knowing,” that imitation leads to acquisition.

Much of the sentence composing approach owes a debt to the pioneering linguist Francis Christensen, the first to see the light, who wrote in Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, “If the new grammar is to be brought to bear on composition, it must be brought to bear on the rhetoric of the sentence….With hundreds of handbooks and rhetorics to draw from I have never been able to work out a program for teaching the sentence as I find it in the work of contemporary writers” (p. 129).

Francis Christensen’s life’s work inspired sentence composing, my life’s work, “a program for teaching the sentence as [it is found] in the work of contemporary writers.” I am deeply grateful to Christensen, my silent mentor.

And deeply grateful to Barry, my silent savior.

The foundation of the sentence composing approach is imitation. Everybody knows that a baby learns to talk partly by imitating the sentences of people who know how to talk. Every teacher of writing needs to know that a student can learn to write partly by imitating the sentences of good writers.

Imitation is both sincere flattery, and profound pedagogy. With the sentence composing approach, students imitate the masters of the art of writing. Our job is to show them how. Otherwise–perish the thought!–in our very own classroom an unsuspecting elephant may be morphed into, well, a slow person.