The Master Sentence and the Centenarian

5 Min Read

One book rec

Punctuation guide

Sentence construction

Language Lover and Word Nerd Special

Toolbox, ages 9 to 109

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A master sentence tends to be long though length is not its sole characteristic, nor is it a sign of a writer’s mastery. Like any art, the master sentence comes in infinite forms. Instead of trying to define what makes such a sentence, here’s an example from recent reading. The paragraph’s six sentences have bold numbers for easy reference.

Pay attention to your thoughts and reaction as you read.

(1) Our arrival across the street from Charlie White turned out to be the start of a seven-year friendship. (2) He defied the actuaries to become one of the last men standing—one of only five fellows from the original 100,000 expected to make it to 109. (3) (Statistically speaking, only two make it to 110, and the last one winks out at around 111.) (4) Charlie was among the last living Americans from the presidency of William Howard Taft, among the last surviving officers of World War II, among the last physicians who knew what it was to practice medicine before penicillin, among the last Americans who could say what it was like to drive an automobile before highways existed, among the last people who felt amazement when pictures moved on a screen, and sound emerged from a box. (5) By the time Charlie was done, he lived nearly half the history of the United States. (6) Born years before Walter P. Chrysler built his first car, Charlie was still around more than seven decades after Chrysler’s death—enough years to see the soaring Chrysler Building age from a symbol of New York’s glorious future into a totem of its past; enough years to find himself swabbing (as I remember it) a high-gloss purple roadster wearing the long-dead Chrysler’s badge, a Chrysler equipped with remote keyless entry and an iPod jack.

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The Book of Charlie: Wisdom from the Remarkable American Life of a 109-Year-Old Man by David Von Drehle, p. 11-12

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I tabbed several passages in this book and this was the first. So startled by the underlying propositions, I set the book in my lap after the fifth sentence to contemplate all this man had done and lived through during his long life. Von Drehle leads the paragraph with an average length sentence–15 to 25 words–about how he met Charlie when he and his family moved onto his street. The second sentence tells us the odds that a man will live to 109 and the third sentence is a parenthetical statement of nonessential information on when all men die or ‘wink’ out.

The details in the fourth sentence build suspense through parallel construction. He repeats the phrase in italics, among the last, five times in a 74 word sentence. Sentence length reflects Charlie’s long life; the writing style mirrors the content. Drehle is taking us somewhere, from a life that began under Taft (what?! no way!) to witnessing moving pictures as they included sound. The climax is the fifth sentence: Charlie lived nearly half the history of the country! That’s my exclamation mark, not Von Drehle’s. He uses a period because the sentences do the heavy lifting, pulling us in, making us wait.

The sixth sentence pegs his birth before Walter P. Chrysler built his first car and Charlie’s existence SEVEN DECADES after the man’s death. And it’s more than just existing that Charlie’s doing, as the author closes with the image of Charlie right there washing a purple PT Cruiser. My goodness, the man outlived Chrysler, the Cruiser, and the iPod jack. The last sentence circles back to the lead when Von Drehle and Charlie’s friendship begins. It also refers to the chapter opening when he sees Charlie for the very first time in his swim trunks, when he was 102 years old and cleaning his girlfriend’s car on a hazy, August morning.

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What makes a master sentence has everything to do with artful construction and, contrary to what English teachers might want you to believe, not with grammar. A writer must know grammar as a chess player knows the rules of the game. But, craftsmanship in writing is about word choice and order. How do you craft the sentence to be not only effective but elegant?

Von Drehle’s fourth and fifth sentences are master sentences because they articulate the breadth of Charlie’s life and how he chose to live, and they do so effectively and elegantly. Effective means the reader understands. Elegant means how Von Drehle achieved this understanding. I would be tempted to end the paragraph after the fifth sentence, letting the idea about living through half of U.S. history sink in with a longer pause, the white space after a paragraph ends.

The paragraph is rich in punctuation–writerly tools used to create rhythm in language, the terminal points such as the period, the pauses from the comma. This passage has two parenthetical expressions, two em dashes, a semicolon, six periods, and a multitude of commas. It has two long sentences.

How did you feel while reading about Charlie? Look for sentences in your reading that move you. How are they constructed? Consider the words, the order, the punctuation, the length. Tab the page, dog-ear it, write in the margin if you laughed. Why?

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Unlike a painting on a canvas with its layers and techniques, the writing is right there on the page. Each word. How often do I come across master sentences or masterful writing? All the time. A typical assignment in college composition is to write a page-length sentence. A single sentence over one or two or three pages. Use conjunctions, commas, parentheses, dashes. Have at it! Writers vary sentence length and sentence type (statement, question, exclamation, command) to suit the content and to engage readers. Go ahead, do it already. I used all four in this paragraph. Plus a few fragments, like this one.

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HOW DOES HE DO IT?

This table shows how Von Drehle constructed the paragraph.

SentenceWord lengthNotes
   Four sentences are average length with two coming in at 74 words each. The fourth and fifth create suspense and build to the climax.
118Lead sentence: How he met Charlie.
227Odds of living as long as he did, to 109 years
317Stats on when all men will die, by 111. He gets that close.
474MASTER SENTENCE. Time pegs with parallel construction of carefully chosen details: Taft! Served in WWII, doctor before AND after penicillin, drove before highways, silent film become talkies.
516MASTER SENTENCE. Climax: Charlie lived nearly half of US history.
674Close with Charlie’s birth before Chrysler built his first car to washing the PT Cruiser when they first meet. Circles back to lead.
   
Total226 words 

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FOOTNOTES

* The Book of Charlie, Wisdom from the Remarkable Amerian Life of a 109-Year-Old-Man by David Von Drehle. Chapter Two, page 11-12. (Simon and Schuster, 2023). Inspirational memoir by a “prominent writer who finds the truth about how to live a long and happy life in the centenarian next door.” Jacket blurb.

**Punctuation Guide. One of the best and easiest reference sites, which is on my browser’s toolbar. Understand the tools you can use and practice for rhythm–that most essential and least talked about aspect of writing. Rhythm in writing is also called cadence.

**Building Great Sentences by Professor Brooks Landon from the University of Iowa consists of 24 lectures on the building block of all writing, the sentence. As a writer with a mathematics background I learned about the structure of writing and what makes it effective and elegant. If you like words, the course is wonderful and the book/ transcript is 400 pages of the anatomy of sentences, rhetoric, tropes, and examples of the best writing.

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Aug 6, 2023

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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