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22 Juni 2007 @ 13:54
Shorter than a sentence  

Book review reviews! Remember those? They're an occasional feature of A Roguish Chrestomathy. This is one of them.

Spoiler alert: This book review review contains the entire text of Lydia Davis's (very) short story "Index Entry." (More specifically, this book review review quotes two sentences of a five-sentence review of the book in which "Index Entry" appears, and one of the two quoted sentences quotes the story in its entirety. This is what we in the business call "fair use." You may also have noticed that this spoiler alert is longer than the book review being reviewed in the book review review below, which is in turn longer than one of the stories in the book reviewed in the reviewed book review, and that the word review no longer looks like a word.) But if you quote the whole thing, is it really a spoiler? Can a story spoil itself? It could, perhaps, spoil the surprise of coming upon the story unawares while reading through Varieties of Disturbance, the collection in which it appears. Anyway, you've now been warned.

The June 25 issue of Da Noo Yawka contains a short, unsigned review of Lydia Davis's short story collection Varieties of Disturbance. It sounds like an interesting volume, but what caught my linguistic attention was the following:

While some stories follow a nominal plot—two academics strolling through Oxford is as wild as it gets—others are not even a sentence long. ("Index Entry" reads, in its entirety, "Christian, I'm not a.")

While I certainly agree that the text of "Index Entry" is not a sentence, I'm not so sure I would say that the story is "not even a sentence long" (emphasis added). The story contains exactly the same set of words that make up each of (1) and (2) below, which are well-formed English sentences:

  1. I'm not a Christian.
  2. A Christian, I'm not.

Although in some contexts it is possible to use the sentence as a meaningful unit of length—for example, the spoiler alert above is three sentences longer than the book review—it really doesn't make much sense to talk about non-integral numbers of that unit, as one implicitly does in describing something as being less than one sentence long. Some sentences are significantly shorter than "Index Entry," such as the ones I discussed in "Time Served," or the one in (3), which you can get by deleting the first and last words of Davis's story:

  1. I'm not.

For that matter, you can turn a sentence into a so-called "sentence fragment" by adding to it; for instance, you could add the word why to the beginning of (1) and come up with a sentence fragment that, modulo the contraction, is the title of an essay by Bertrand Russell:

  1. why I'm not a Christian

Somehow, I suspect that the fact that "Index Entry" comprises only one non-sentence, and not a very long one at that, is crucial to the anonymous reviewer's willingness to describe it as "not even a sentence long." A story consisting of seven pages of non-sentences, or of a single seven-page non-sentence, probably couldn't be characterized that way.

So, given that there's no answer to the question "How long is a sentence?", how might a reviewer characterize the brevity of "Index Entry"? I think I would remark that it is shorter (but also packs less of a punch) than Ernest Hemingway's famous six-word story about shoes.

Vizcachachillyrodent on 22. Juni, 2007 22:01 (UTC)
Those responsible for sacking the people who have just been sacked
have been sacked.

Prof. Bleen: totoroflute6_bleen_7 on 23. Juni, 2007 03:04 (UTC)
There will also be a small additional penalty of six million years in prison.