English basics: Sentences

Words are probably the most important building blocks of communications. They capture elementary concepts, things, names, actions, and characteristics. Some dogs can understand a vocabulary that includes a couple hundred words. Humans are far more capable intellectually. Depending on age, education, and environment, we have vocabularies that range from many hundreds to many thousands of words. What separates humans from other life forms – and it is a huge quantum leap – is that we can take these thousands of words and compose them into sentences to make observations and value judgments, express opinions, state facts, ask questions, and communicate other information to other people. A collection of sentences can then be composed to tell a story, discuss a quandary, describe an experience, or develop a more complete description of some topic.

Wikipedia defines sentence as follows:

In linguistics, a sentence is an expression in natural language – a grammatical and lexical unit consisting of one or more words, representing distinct and differentiated concepts, and combined to form a meaningful statement, question, request, command, etc.

Sentences have numerous rules of grammar that govern how words can be composed into well-structured, meaningful expressions. There are many different ways to express a thought using the same words, and even more ways to express it using different words with similar meanings.

Some sentences roll right off the tongue; others torture us on the way out of our mouths. Well-constructed sentences help the reader and the listener understand your thoughts as you intend them. Poorly constructed sentences can strain or confuse your audience. The hardest sentence for most people to say is probably, “I was wrong,” although not because of the mechanics of speech.

The most useful advice tends to be concise. Here are two examples that have struck nerves deep in my brain and etched themselves into my permanent memory.

From The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz:

  1. Be impeccable to your word.
  2. Don’t make assumptions.
  3. Don’t take things personally.
  4. Do the best you can.

In fewer than 20 words and four short sentences, Ruiz provides four observations that would make profound differences in most people’s perceived happiness. In my experience, people who appear to be happy deep inside as well as on the surface practice the Four Agreements as natural instincts.

Some short sentences in Cowboy Ethics,  by Owen and Stocklein, capture values that represent the culture of the American West and position these values as foundations that Wall Street could learn from.

  1. Live each day with courage.
  2. Take pride in your work.
  3. Always finish what you start.
  4. Do what has to be done.
  5. Be tough, but fair.
  6. When you make a promise, keep it.
  7. Ride for the brand.
  8. Talk less and say more.
  9. Remember that some things aren’t for sale.
  10. Know where to draw the line.

I’ve spent more than 30 years in the business world of information technology, spanning defense contracting and commercial product development. In my experience, the guidance offered in Cowboy Ethics strikes me as sound, and not routinely practiced. The economic crisis of 2008-2009 clearly exposed the need for more cowboy ethics on Wall Street and in Washington. The most successful people I know – those who have made the biggest contributions to humankind, not to their bank accounts – have practiced most of these cowboy ethics as innate values in their everyday activities and long-term careers.

The two examples above are extraordinary. They demonstrate two common, recurring themes in great pieces of communication: They are concise and they connect with memorable impact.

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