Saturday, 12 February 2011

One-sentence paragraphs, metacognition ... and the quietest places under the sun

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

(From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)

Thus Dickens begins Tale of Two Cities with one of the most famous one-sentence paragraphs in literature. If Dickens could use one-sentence paragraphs why shouldn't less celebrated authors? Yet I'm surely not alone in having been told in school that a paragraph must have more than one sentence. A quick internet search provides supporters and detractors for the practice in equal numbers. The consensus seems to be that one-sentence paragraphs are not strictly forbidden these days - and can indeed have great impact (hence their widespread use in print journalism) - but that they should be used sparingly. With this in mind, and bowing to Dickens’ genius, I'm prepared to forgive Chris’s one-sentence paragraph habit which became a talking-point at this week's meeting of the Severn Valley Authors.

We were discussing an extract from Chris’s work in progress: Karl Marx and Careful Driving. With flashes of brilliantly fine writing, Chris’s project is becoming ever more complex and multi-layered. Chris acknowledged that it is highly experimental but I'm not sure what he made of my suggestion that, at times, it is now closer to an epic prose poem than a narrative.

Rob noted Chris's tendency to sometimes “go off on one”, by which he meant those times where Chris quotes philosophy without linking it to his highly original truck-driving theme. The great difficulty is getting the balance right and the group agreed that it sometimes reads too much like a textbook. Annie wanted “nuggets of Marxism and chunks of real life” rather than the other way round and Chris defended himself by pointing out that the lengthy Marx quotes have only been ‘dropped’ into the text provisionally and will be edited and paraphrased in time.

Annie dazzled us with her introduction of the concept of ‘metacognition’ with reference to the following (two-sentence) paragraph of Chris’s:

Individual fulfilment is achieved by closing the gap that exists between our unique personal essence - the perfect imaginary world that figures only in our dreams - and our existence (the world transmitted by our senses). The gap between essence and existence, theory and practice, the World of Ideas and the World of the Senses, had narrowed.

Annie had always thought this thought, apparently, but hadn’t known she had thought it until now – metacognition, indeed!

After the above, one-sentence paragraph the only question that remains is: Do decades have capitals? That is to say, should it be “the eighties and the nineties” or the “Eighties and the Nineties”? Perhaps Linda will discover the answer to this and other questions when she attends the Arvon Foundation course at Clunton in June.

“Where’s Clunton?” asked Rob.

I don't want to give away the exact location for obvious reasons for, being an inveterate 'Shropshire Lad' of course I know that, in the words of A E Houseman:

Clunton and Clunbury,

Clungunford and Clun,

Are the quietest places

Under the sun.

(from Clunton and Clunbury by A E Housman)

1 comment:

  1. Good post, Tony. I too have been doing some research and found the correct terminology to use when one of us uses a modifying phrase but seems to mis-place it in the sentence. It's called a hanging (or dangling, misrelated or unattached) participle. This is from the University of Hull web pages:

    'Sometimes participles can lose touch with the noun the writer meant them to describe (“Swinging on the chandelier, the mother told her children to behave”), and the reader can read them as describing another noun than the one the writer meant to describe. Often the noun that the reader understands is inappropriate. It is more likely to have been the children than the mother who were swinging on the chandelier. The sentence should be rephrased as “The mother told her children off for swinging [or because they had swung] on the chandelier.”

    This is an example of the hanging participle, also known as dangling, misrelated or unattached participles.'

    So there we have it. No doubt we'll still be caught with our participles dangling but at least in future we know what to call it.