Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Post 18 -- Sentence 101: Propositions

I've talked before about Sentence Abuse, the idea that a poorly-written sentence grows up to be a poorly-developed paragraph, and that badly-raised paragraphs birth awful pages. It is a wonderful macro view of things, zooming out progressively further and further above the writing until you see an overall picture.

But equally important (and occasionally I will argue more important) is the micro-view - that all writing lives and dies at the sentence level.

Too often in grammar-nazi environments there is a sterilization and autopsy of the words; that there has to be this treatment of the words as clinical objects long since expired before we work with them. This lack of emotional connectivity to our words is the source of writing problems -- our connection to what we write is what drives our conscious efforts to select the words at their best moment (I'm reminded of commercials that say products are picked at the height of freshness) rather than just fill the page and make excuses about it later.

There can be no excuse and no succor given when you're consciously aware and making bad choices in writing. Assuming responsibility and making a vigilant effort to improve is your only recourse. Ignorance only takes you so far, and intentional ignorance of rules like grammar, structure and detail seems (to me) to be the hallmarks of cowardly writers who won't assume the responsibility or the potential that failure exists along their paths to success.

Don't be a writing coward. Nothing is gained from being mediocre on purpose.

We look today at the underlying construction of sentences, past the thicket of grammatical terms and getting to the concepts they represent. Yes, there is a level of thought that goes deeper than "subject/predicate" and "noun-verb agreement". This level is called "propositions" and it is a greatly conceptual level.

A proposition is a statement about the reality constructed in the writing that may be accepted or rejected by the reader/audience.

The proposition is not so much the specific word, but rather the idea that a word or words represents in the context.

Here is a sample sentence: I'm going to go play Madden 2011.

It's not an elaborate sentence (I'll do one of those next), but all the same, it creates propositions (which I occasionally call 'conditions'). I've listed out the propositions:

  1. There exists a being called "I".
  2. There exists something called "Madden 2011".
  3. "Madden 2011" can be played (inference: It is a game.)
  4. The being called "I" is going to play the game called "Madden 2011"
I've drawn out the thinking in these 4 statements intentionally. You can understand who I am and what I'm about to do without taking it to that level all the time, but the demonstration is obvious -- whatever we say, and however we say it, work together to create an image. And it is that image which leads to a reaction in the part of the audience.

This shows that it is not the particular word which prompts response, it is the image conjured by the word (the proposition) that is reacted to by the audience. Perhaps a reader is jealous that I have Madden 2011, or that I have the free time to play. Perhaps the reader is angry that I'm not spending more time writing blogposts. Perhaps a reader is totally uninterested in what I will play, but interested more in that I am playing.....it doesn't matter - as long as A reaction is felt by the reader.

Yes, that's correct. I don't care ultimately what is felt, as long as something is felt. Why? Very interesting question - let's step aside and examine it.

Sidebar: Why are you writing? Are you writing so that you express something that others do not? Are you writing so that others may experience something? Are you writing entirely for mercenary financial reasons because your present job (if any) is unrewarding? The answer to that question is what shapes your view of your audience.

If you're writing because you have to say something (or that you have something to say and you fear it won't be heard otherwise) then you're compensating for feelings of inadequacy or esteem -- you've just made the writing all about yourself, rather than the audience or story.

If you're writing because you want the audience to experience something specific, and you're only allowing them to feel one particular way, you're essentially controlling a group of people, which is ultimately impossible and unsatisfying.

If you're writing for mercenary financial reasons, I assure you, that path is not quick or easy, and forsaking the audience in place of dollar signs is only going to make the path harder and more treacherous. Also, please leave me alone -- I have ZERO patience for you if you're only in this for money. (Likewise, the people who list money as even the second item in the list of 'Reasons I write' should run far away from me.)

You cannot force the audience to only think one way, and doing so is transparent and obvious and will cost you readers as they quickly label you as "mean" "passive-aggressive" or "bullying"By not controlling, by giving them their own full range of emotions, I'm accounting for all the factors I can't know about (like preferences, biases and assumptions).

While an individual word can elicit a response, because it's a fancy or archaic word, it is the reaction to the concept of the word which a writer needs to care more about.

Also absent here is the idea that propositions are the work of short sentences. In fact, longer sentences give a better foundation for propositions, as evidenced below:

"On that cold day in January, when the snow finally stopped falling, I was able to come to terms with my loneliness - that menacing spectre felt because of the conspicuous absence of hugs, affection, companionship and conversation. "

To list propositions, you can either start linearly (from the beginning clause of the sentence) or work impactfully (finding the elements that are the "punch" of the sentence. Here I'll work linearly:

  1. It's January
  2. It's a January with at least one cold day
  3. It had snowed before the time of this sentence/scene.
  4. The speaker is lonely
  5. The speaker, up until that moment, was not comfortable being lonely
  6. The speaker describes loneliness as a spectre
  7. The speaker proves loneliness through a lack of hugs, affection, companionship and conversation.
  8. The speaker values those things.
This is eight of the fourteen possible propositions available in that sentence.

Examine your own work so far and see what propositions you can find, and see if the unspoken concepts match your intentions. If they do, great. If not, then consider matching the unspoken with what's on paper to see if that improves the writing.

Note: This material will be covered in FAR greater detail on August 30th, and will be expanded thereafter in later posts.