The Major and Minor Notes of Sentences

My life is full of language as a helium balloon is full of helium. I almost said, “. . .the way a balloon is filled with hot air.” But regardless of what light, airy simile I choose to use, the law of buoyancy still implies that I rise like a cork in a basin of water when I immerse myself in language.

The other day, I shared what might happen if students aren’t allowed to write their essays in heroic couplets. They might never turn into hunchbacked little men who are able to translate ancient Greek documents into English (see Alexander Pope). Alas, I discovered another consequence of leaning too heavily on the five-paragraph essay format. Students might never understand how to write in complete sentences. I learned this while researching samples of full-point SAT essays, all of which used perfect five-paragraph (or four-paragraph) essay format, and many of which used fragmented and run-on sentences for the sake of bad communication.

Let’s study sentences for a moment. At essence, a sentence is a group of words. A group of words could contain any type thereof. Jellyfish, sword, and beanie-baby. is a group of nouns followed by a period and, therefore, a sentence. One verb might also do, just to destroy the idea of group mentality [who needs groups, anyway? I’m a loner!]: “Swim?” Or, perhaps, a nominal group [a group in name, only, of course] would fit the bill: “Swimmingly happy jellyfish.” Some sentences involve best friends: “Lucy and Jane.”

Sentences are, more essentially, expressions of verbal or written language. They don’t even have to be composed of words. Who’s to say that

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again”
(from A. Pope’s Essay on Criticism)

is better than

“when faces called flowers float out of the ground
and breathing is wishing and wishing is having-
but keeping is downward and doubting and never
-it’s april(yes,april;my darling)it’s spring”
(from ee cumming’s 67)

is better than

“Skit skat skoodle doot, flip flop flee” (from Martin and Archambault’s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom).

If the words or sounds give you that squeaky, helium, lighter-than-air feeling, then what’s the problem? The problem is a lack of communication. Now, I understand that Chicka Chicka Boom Boom is a child’s book, a picture tome, and its purpose is to be silly and create slapdash rhythm. In the silliness sense, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom achieves its intended purpose. But it achieves no other. Who could possibly learn the alphabet from it, or understand why letters climb coconut trees? And why do lowercase letters sneak out at night, thereby disobeying the capital ones? And why do I have to read this drivel to my young children? Why? Why?

The ultimate purpose of the sentence is communication of some kind [Yes, I figured that out all on my own]. In the case of the banal five-paragraph essay, it should intend to simplify complex ideas into readable points. If the writer fails to pen major sentences, the writer has failed at the primary, intended purpose of the condensed essay form. What is a major sentence? Since I’ve broken down sentences into their most basic forms, now we must differentiate between grammatical sentences and ungrammatical ones.

While you could call my examples above sentences, even the one verb–Swim?–you couldn’t call them major sentences. They are sentences that hit minor notes, sentences that adhere to the barest of definitions. Begin with a capital and end with punctuation, and you will create a sentence. Wow! (This is a minor sentence.) That’s neat! (This is a major sentence because it also contains a noun and a verb.)

Swim! Why? The swimmingly happy jellyfish are headed this way! What a relief that we finally graduated to the majors. I wouldn’t have liked to suffer a jellyfish sting. Remember–my goal is to float like a cork to the top, not sink like a punctured balloon.

The jellyfish will sting you on the toes,
So–swim!–my child, away from language woes!

Thank you, but Pope would have despised my not-so-heroic couplet.



  1. I think I prefer Pope to Cummings, but more than that, we could be “creative verbing”, be jellyfishing about the tide, searching for the sun (or some such nonsense)…

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