ELSIE: What’s that, Daddy?
FATHER: A cow.
—from a 1906 issue of Punch, quoted by Ernest Weekley as an epigraph to his book An Etymology of Modern English
When we reflect that “sentence” means, literally, “a way of thinking” (Latin: sententia) and that it comes from the Latin sentire, to feel, we realize that the concepts of sentence and sentence structure are not merely grammatical or merely academic—not negligible in any sense. A sentence is both the opportunity and the limit of thought—what we have to think with, and what we have to think in. It is, moreover, a feelable thought, a thought that impresses its sense not just on our understanding, but on our hearing, our sense of rhythm and proportion. It is a pattern of felt sense.
—Wendell Berry, “Standing by Words”
Captain Smith … , happening to be taken Prisoner among the Indians, had leave granted him to send a Message to the Governor of the English Fort in James Town, about his Ransome; the Messenger being an Indian, was surpriz’d, when he came to the Governor, … for that the Governor could tell him all his Errand before he spoke one Word of it to him, and that he only had given him a piece of Paper: After which, when they let him know that the Paper which he had given the Governor had told him all the Business, then … Capt. Smith was a Deity and to be Worshipp’d, for that he had Power to make the Paper Speak.
—Daniel Defoe, An Essay on the Original of Literature, 1726Copyright © 2011 by Roy Blount Jr. Roy Blount Jr. is the author of twenty-one previous books, covering subjects from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Robert E. Lee to what dogs are thinking. He is a regular panelist on NPR’s Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! and is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. Born in Indianapolis and raised in Decatur, Georgia, Blount now lives in western Massachusetts with his wife, the painter Joan Griswold.