One perfect sentence

It’s the final sentence, and it’s just right

When writing, we typically spin our wheels on beginnings, and beginnings are indeed important. Beginnings are what set the scene, what establish theme, what begin to lay out for the reader just what kind of piece this is and where we’re going with it. Beginnings are the springboards, to be sure. But endings deliver the payoff. The ends of sentences, the ends of paragraphs, the ends of essays, articles, books — all are positions for delivering a thought with particular emphasis and impact.

At the end of an essay on Dido Elizabeth Belle, the real-life inspiration behind the recent movie Belle, comes this sentence —

It seems Dido Belle, for all the obscurity of her later life, is in 2014 something of an icon.

It is the final sentence of the final paragraph, the most emphatic position of any work. That’s the last thought the author will leave us with, perhaps with a tidy wrap-up or commentary of some sort, perhaps with an ironic twist or a parting shot, perhaps with a deliberate feeling of no endpoint, of stopping midaction. (Very French.) This final moment is the bridge, for us, between the world of the essay (or article or book) and the world outside it. With what sense do we turn now from one to the other? What reverberations will what we’ve read have? What echoes of it might we carry with us, for a few moments or longer, into our day? Of course, the content of the whole provides the substance, but it’s the final thought of the piece that’s the springboard. It’s the final thought that looks both back over the piece and forward to the leaving of it.

Here are the last two paragraphs of this essay, which set the immediate context for the final sentence (the complete context is, of course, the full essay) — 

There’s one last question worth thinking about. “I wondered if Dido herself ever saw the painting,” says Davies. “I was intrigued by what she might have thought of it. But I’ve been told it wasn’t shown at Kenwood during her lifetime.”

Perhaps she would have liked it. Others certainly do. At the Scone Palace gift shop, alongside reproductions of the double portrait, you can buy cropped images showing Dido, alone and smiling. It’s an image that’s been printed on to pocket mirrors, key rings, and magnetic notepads. It seems Dido Belle, for all the obscurity of her later life, is in 2014 something of an icon.

Now that you’ve a better sense of how that sentence is situated, how the buildup to it works, let’s take a closer look at that sentence, the one that both paragraph and essay conclude with. Perhaps the best way to appreciate the construction of the whole, and the specific impacts of that construction, is to begin with the core sentence and to look at the successive layering of technique.

But first, we should say something more about this business of the ends of sentences.

End focus

In the simplest and plainest sort of structure, a sentence in English opens with the subject and is followed by the predicate. This is the familiar subject-verb-object (SVO) or subject-verb-complement (SVC) order. It’s your basic, garden variety type of sentence. You might think of this as the default.

In such a sentence, the natural point of focus is in the predicate, generally towards the end of the sentence. This is where, in English, our simplest, most basic sentences naturally tend— this structure, this emphasis — which is why English sentences are said to have end focus.

Of course, there are techniques for refocusing that point of emphasis elsewhere in the sentence. Not all sentences follow SVO/SVC order (and rightly so, as that make for exceedingly dull reading). And there are techniques for heightening the tension of the natural endpoint.

The layering of effect in this sentence

At the heart of the sentence is this core statement —

Dido Belle is something of an icon.

This is the simple subject, the verb, and the subject complement (here, a predicate nominative). The emphasis is on the phrase something of an icon, with the most emphatic point being icon. This is also the news the sentence offers us: it’s the point the sentence wants to drive home. It’s the point of the sentence.

Adverb of time between verb and complement

Adding in the timeframe, and following the order of the sentence in its entirety, yields this —

Dido Belle is in 2014 something of an icon.

And here’s the first point of deliberately heightened emphasis. Time information is adverbial, and adverbs are fluidly mobile within sentences. This phrase could have appeared in many different positions in the sentence, including at the very start, as a transitional element. That’s a standard position for adverbs of time, not only because they then set the context for what’s to come but also because it’s often best to get that more incidental information out of the way, clearing the path for the other, more important bits of info to be conveyed.

But here, the author has chosen to use that short phrase of time to suspend us, just for a moment, before delivering the end. It’s a delay tactic, and that small delay adds emphasis to the already emphasized point, something of an icon. Because the date has been itself placed in a “marked” (that is, unusual) position, it too is given more emphasis than it would have otherwise received. And in the final version of the sentence, that’s an emphasis that makes good sense, as the framing of this sentence is then contrasted with now.

midSentence interrupter between subject and verb

Adding in the lengthy interrupting phrase, again maintaining the order of the sentence in full, yields this —

Dido Belle, for all the obscurity of her later life, is in 2014 something of an icon.

This is another adverbial phrase, this time modifying the entire sentence. As an adverb, it too is very mobile. As a sentence modifier, it might well have introduced the sentence. Placed as it is, it again suspends us for a time — this time not only from reaching the end of the sentence, but also from reaching the verb.

At the same time, because this phrase too is placed in an unusual position, it calls attention to itself. And though we do not add commas everywhere we might take a breath in a sentence, where we do add them, we also add a beat. Thus, commas change the rhythm of the phrasing as well, throwing just a bit of emphasis onto what precedes them, in this case Dido Belle and later life. The added emphasis on Dido Belle serves to emphasize what would otherwise be completely unmarked, the subject in the subject position, which serves then to highlight that subject. The added emphasis on later life places us in time and highlights that time, which will in one moment be contrasted with our time.

Although both adverbials, the short phrase of time and this longer sentence modifier, might well have been used to introduce the sentence — and in many sentences, that is the best solution for information of this type and with typical purpose — here those would not have been the best choices.

anticipatory it

In the final layering of effect, the sentence is structured with what’s known as an anticipatory it, or it-shift. This is a technique for shifting clauses or phrases — often structures that would be too ungainly in the subject position — so as to deliver them more smoothly. It can also be used as a technique for shifting emphasis to that subject phrase, by moving it from its unmarked, or home, position to a position of natural emphasis in the predicate phrase. In fact, this shift of emphasis will always be a natural effect of the move.

To take one simple example, “To lie is wrong” is perfectly correct, but “It is wrong to lie” is smoother and more natural. It also casts more emphasis on the phrase to lie than the version without the shift does. As for the sentence “Who pays the ticket doesn’t matter,” although it is grammatically correct, is not typical of how we’d array the information. We would more naturally say, “It doesn’t matter who pays the ticket.” Not only is this structure smoother, it also shifts the emphasis to what would have otherwise been the unmarked subject clause.

The expression “it seems that” (whether that appears or is elided) is an expression that employs this technique of shifting information to the right in the sentence. In this framing, everything that follows the explicit or implicit that is considered, grammatically, to be the full subject phrase, in apposition to the opening it that fills the subject slot.

But you don’t need to know all that to appreciate the effect of this final structural layer: more emphasis on Dido Belle than if it had been the unmarked subject (and that’s in addition to the emphasis added by the placement of that comma following the name) and yet more delay of the sentence endpoint, which means — when such delay is handled well — more dramatic tension.

And that brings us to the final form of the sentence —

It seems (that) Dido Belle, for all the obscurity of her later life, is in 2014 something of an icon.

At each step in the way, with each choice, the author has worked to tighten expression and to heighten dramatic tension. The end result is a sentence with a rich musicality, a lovely rippling of varied emphasis, playing across it. And an endpoint that has been made more emphatic with a series of carefully crafted suspensions and delays.

The end result

How else might this sentence have been phrased?

It’s possible to play around with the components and come up with several variations. Of those possibilities, perhaps the best, perhaps also the most representative of how this sentence might typically have been written, is this — 

In 2014, for all the obscurity of her later life, Dido Belle is something of an icon.

There is nothing wrong with this sentence. It even ends on a relatively strong note. But it is nowhere near as delightful as the version in the essay. Each of techniques  employed— the somewhat surprising placement of the year, the lengthy interrupting sentence modifier and its placement, the use of the anticipatory it — serves to heighten suspense, which further heightens the impact of that final phrase, and that very last word, when it arrives.

And that’s good writing. 


Epilogue

If you’d like to take a look at that progression from core sentence to final sentence in terms of sentence diagrams, scroll on . . .

Here’s the core sentence.

Core sentence.png

Adding in the adverbial phrase of time.

Core sentence + adverbial phrase of time.png

Adding in the (also adverbial) sentence modifier.

Core + adverbial time + sentence modifier.png

Restructuring with the anticipatory it.

The whole of it resttructured with the anticipatory it.png