While we at the Riot take some time off to rest and catch up on our reading, we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last several months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Monday, January 11th.
This post originally ran September 28, 2015.
Sometimes, whether buried in a block of lengthy prose or a brief poem, a sentence can be a thing of true beauty. On the surface, such a construction is nothing more than a string of words between periods, question marks, exclamation points, etc. We learn this at a young age. Capitalize the first letter, include a subject and predicate, then conclude with appropriate punctuation.
If we were to put millions of subjectively beautiful sentences into a database, perhaps a program could be created to identify commonalities. It could give us the average adjective to noun ratio, the most common number of words, and how many words go between each comma, among other useful facts.
Of course, attempting to decipher the complexity of language with this mathematical approach would likely prove unsatisfying. While it’s certainly only a matter of time before computers are able to spit out novels, there’s something unequivocally human about writing a lovely sentence.
Book Riot’s own Amanda Nelson explains that a beautiful sentence “always reveals some truth I knew but couldn’t articulate.” For me, it is often captured by a change in my breathing. When a sentence disrupts the rhythms of my body, I know it has genuinely altered my perspective. Whether this is a hackneyed sign of beauty, similar to the old romantic cliché of someone taking your breath away, or simply signifies that the words engage me and demand my full attention, is hard to tell.
However, my reaction to beautiful prose – the moment of paused breathing, deep exhalation, and audible sighing at the wonder of words – is not isolated. When this question, “What makes a beautiful sentence?,” was posed to our contributors, many of us shared this common experience as readers. We all expressed a change in lung function, with slight variations, such as flipping the book over to allow the words to sink in. I’d like to pose that perhaps this platitude is actually biological.
Maybe, when words are amalgamated together into some combination that we could never imagine, our brains need a split second to allow the synapses to fire and connect, creating a stronger mental tie to the language that binds us together as humans. The typical lapse in breathing is simply the mind handling too many responsibilities at once, momentarily forgetting a crucial life function. In milliseconds that moment passes, the computer freezing of the mind, and then there is new understanding branded within the impossible-to-navigate mess of grey matter.
This theory aligns with Amanda’s assessment, in that the beauty of a sentence is revealed in finding something unknown. It could very well be the same reason for the romantic nature of breathlessness as well. Maybe when we see a person that we couldn’t have ever imagined existing, that goes beyond our expectations of what the world holds, there is that same moment where our brains must use all of its activity to accept this discovery.
This, of course, is just one proposition. Maybe nothing more than a result of my overactive imagination. After all, we face endless droves of mundane sentences every day. There is an inordinate amount of dull sentences we use day in and day out for the sole purpose of communication. Beauty could be as simple as breaking free of this routine. Writers, much like visual artists, film directors, and musicians, work diligently to stimulate our senses in new ways. That’s why often the writers we love follow few rules or manipulate the rules to fit a higher purpose. In that sense, a beautiful sentence could be an unapologetic act of rebellion.
Then again, all of these conjectures could be completely bogus. Beauty could all fall back into science and math. Someone with more tech savvy than me could probably write the program and find the formula, break the code of letters and markings that creates the ideal aesthetic. But I choose to believe this program cannot exist. I choose to think that such a formula would strip any sign of beauty from the gift of language, leaving us with a barren landscape of uniform pages. Instead, each person utilizes a lifetime lexicon that goes beyond words, articulating our shared experiences in a way that may be identical to some slim portion of the population, but leaves the rest of us gasping in awe, revealing some new truth that was never completely alien but was also impossible to replicate; and so we react, finding beauty in the unknown.