Death of the Sentence

Sunday, August 21, 2022
First Aired: 
Sunday, January 26, 2020

What Is It

A child’s first sentence is a pivotal moment in her development when she is recognized as now capable of communicating complete thoughts. But in the 21st century, thoughts have become increasingly mediated by technology, and language more careless and informal as a result. Are texts, emails, tweets, and emojis responsible for the decline of the formal, grammatical sentence? Are our writing standards getting worse, or are they simply changing with the times? And what effect—good or bad—will new communicative styles have on participation in the democratic polity? The philosophers share complete thoughts with Jan Mieszkowski from Reed College, author of Crises of the Sentence.



Josh Landy  
Are tweeting and texting killing the sentence?

Ray Briggs  
Don't outmoded forms of writing deserve to die?

Josh Landy  
Isn't there room for more than one kind of writing?

Comments (12)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, December 30, 2019 -- 12:03 PM

This promises to be a

This promises to be a fascinating show. IOW (in other words), I would love to be able to hear it. I have written several essay-length pieces, encompassing popular culture and aspects of linguistic changes. My 14-year-old grandson has trouble writing a sentence in cursive because it is no longer required; people cannot say ten words without using the word 'like'; and silly acronyms replace ordinary language because they are faster to write/text. Devolution, indeed...or, maybe, ultra-simplicity will be the new intellectual legend? Hmmmmm...

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, December 31, 2019 -- 7:09 AM

That a sentence should define

That a sentence should define completeness is a joke I hope to hear Jan tell.

I look forward to this show as I do to a blog that would set its stage.

Wherever this show goes, there will be much to think about. Children will not be the subject or the originators I would posit. Humanity, and human agency, is the issue not democracy I would posit.

Who are these philosophers unnamed one? I'm interested and somewhat concerned.

Carry on.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, January 9, 2020 -- 12:05 PM

The death of the sentence is

The death of the sentence is a symptom of bigger problems, seems to me. I dashed this off this morning. Maybe you will get the drift---I don't know:

Process; Thought and Depersonalization in the Late Post-Modern Era

I have been thinking about what follows for some time. Probably since people began using the word 'process', in lieu of terms such as thought and thinking. So, this is an objection, aimed at incurably hip, post-moderns everywhere. Thought is a human capacity at the moment. AI proponents are pondering this, wondering if that capacity might be imputed into their subject matter. Processing, however, is a machine function, built in to machinery of all sorts. It is what machines are uniquely DESIGNED to do. Human beings analyze, evaluate and make value judgments about other people, places and things. This is what they are uniquely EQUIPPED to do.
Anyone reading this might think me a crotchety grump-er, or better, ignorant and out-of-touch with the real world. To which I would counter with something like: post-modernism and pop culture in the 'real' world are depersonalizing human beings. I am not asking anyone to think harder We should, I think, think better. It would be foolish of me to try to tell you how to do this. Why? Because thinking is an intensely personal matter. Each of us has his or her own ways of going about it. Oh, and leave processing to the experts. They are pretty good at it, being machines and all...
(Sorry about the scare quotes. But hey, I only used them once.)

JNavas's picture


Sunday, January 26, 2020 -- 7:18 PM

It seems to me that what's

It seems to me that what's being missed is that communication is really about what's received, whereas today there's entirely too much emphasis on sending. Sentence structure facilitates understanding by the recipient, whereas the current abbreviated short form may only be intelligible to the initiated.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, March 12, 2020 -- 4:31 AM

Hmm...I like this.

Hmm...I like this.

It's both sending (composing) but mostly receiving even when talking to yourself... or posting to the cloud.

Composing has helped me. I think that is where Harold is going with writing.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, February 5, 2020 -- 10:55 AM

I keep wondering, what with

I keep wondering, what with an ever expanding dearth of conversation and social interaction---where does this all go? If devolution is the next Big Thing, it appears we have gone full-circle on the evolutionary scale (whatever that might mean). Yet, we are still talking about sophisticated topics such as AI, driver-less cars, and, even planting an American flag on Mars. (Heck, our president is so intent on being the best there has ever been,I wonder if he knows about our previous expeditions to the red planet? Surely, he must?) I was reading a collection of philosophical papers, from 1989---not so terribly long ago. One essay had to do with rhetoric and its significance in a world, based in large part, on linguistic progress. One of the pivotal ideas was (paraphrased): rhetoric matters, one way or another. One wonders, further: If we have come this far, in part due to this capacity we call language, what do we imagine further progress might look like without it? If rhetoric matters, one way or another, what is the OTHER way? Or, put differently, what would speechless rhetoric consist of? Telepathy?

Daniel's picture


Wednesday, July 13, 2022 -- 2:14 PM

I'm in agreement with

I'm in agreement with participant Neuman's 1/9/20-post: Use of contemporary novel consumer-based communications systems is destroying the ability to talk because that's what it's designed for. If you can't talk, what's left is exchange in signals, functioning as approval or rejection so that no content is transmitted, conditioning the user for greater accommodation to manipulation of consumer behaviors. Something similar happens in the light-bulb market. If you sell people more light than they need, they'll lose the ability to see well, making the sale of brighter lights more profitable. Wide dissatisfaction with over-lit areas and increased brightness of automobile headlights seems not to have affected the problem. And that's how the agreement with participant Neuman's thesis is here interpreted: Destroying the ability to talk turns out to be a market design for the sale of communications. The less able people are to engage freely in discussion, the more willing will they be to buy their ability to communicate.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, August 23, 2022 -- 8:50 AM

The death of the sentence

The death of the sentence seems to have educed little more than a soft whimper. A more pressing concern may be the inability of speakers and writers to pay attention. There is an ad (radio) for a healthcare provider, located in a small town east of where I live. The line goes like this: ...and, as always, we are currently accepting new patients... So, what is off about this? Well, the phrase, as always, stands alone if taken by itself. As does we are currently. But place them together, just so, and one cancels out the other. Or, at best sends a confusing message about whether one may become a patient with that practice. We hear inane redundancies and over-emphasis everyday, as though such explanation makes the originator sound smarter or more articulate. it does not. It makes him/her sound like poorly programmed artificial intelligence.
I tend to ignore acronyms and nonsensical captions. Just don't have time for that. If someone wants to give me useful information, I am all ears. If I have to solve a puzzle, I am not.

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Daniel's picture


Thursday, August 25, 2022 -- 12:15 PM

Assuredly the contrary is

Assuredly the contrary is true. Without having to defer to a subjective and therefore unverifiable premise concerning where one's attentional preference may be directed, but based on the assumption of common capacities for perception, a safe assumption can be made that the ears are not removed upon puzzle-solving compulsion. For one can hear without listening, but not listen without hearing. It therefore follows that one who listens hears more from a few incomplete sentences than one who hears only does from many complete ones. Consider the following:

Seven sentences of various duration are uttered at different times, which can be represented as S1, S2, S3, S4, S5, S6, and S7, to which the following conditions apply:
a) S3 is uttered earlier than S2.
b) S2 is uttered earlier than S6.
c) S5 is of longer duration than S3, S6, and S7.
d) Only two sentences are uttered earlier that S1.
e) There is a minimum of four sentences longer than S2.
f) Sentence S4 is uttered most recently.
g) Only one sentence is longer than S4.
h) The shortest sentence is also uttered the earliest.

1) So, which sentence besides S5 and S7 can be the earliest?
2) If S3 is longer than S2, which one is the most recent?
3) Assuming that S5 is uttered earlier than S3, how many sentences were uttered earlier than S2?

Answer key:
1)' S3, because S1 is uttered later than two sentences and is not the shortest. In addition, S3 is uttered earlier than S2 which in turn is earlier than S4.
2)' S7. First, S5 is longer than S7, S3, and S6; and S2 is uttered earlier than S6. As S3 is earlier than S2 though, it is excluded on account of condition (h). From there the answer is elicited by a simple process of elimination of the remaining sentences:
a) S1 is more recent than two of the others.
b) S3 is both earlier and of longer duration than S2,
c) and S2 in turn is earlier than S6, leaving only S7.
3)' Four. S7 must be both the shortest and the earliest, since the operative assumption excludes S3 from being the shortest, and S2 has to be longer. S3 is earlier than S2, which is in turn earlier than S6. Because S4 is the most recent, and S6 is later than S2, that leaves S5 as the sentence which together with S7 fulfills condition (d). That's three sentences, S7, S3, and S5, to which S1 is therefore added, being stuck in third place after S5 and S7.

Or take another: Which sentence is the longest if it is earlier than S4, but later than S6 (answer provided upon request)? One can imagine an experiment where singular words could take the place of the sentence numbers so that whole sentences might be formed by default by arranging them according to the chronological order of their utterance and the number of words represented by the same number of letters of the given word, chosen at random except by the number of their characters. Would a genuine listening be possible in that case, or would just hearing it suffice to judge it as meaningless?

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, September 18, 2022 -- 7:12 AM

Interesting commentary on

Interesting commentary on language today at another blog. Remark by George Orwell, date unknown, was enlightening.. Sunday 9/19/22.
It becomes more complex, this writing game. One must not write too much like an academic, nor can he sound too folksy or familiar. In seeking clarity, don't become erudite of stuffy. If you want to develop a sense of style (Pinker), better not be too stylish., because then it sounds academic. In short, anything you have learned of writing is in flux.: it may be used against you, depending on the interests, preferences and motivations of the reader.

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Monday, April 1, 2024 -- 12:48 AM

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