the demise of the sentence (remember that?)


A couple of weeks ago, I went to a bank branch in Manhattan to request some documents for tax preparation purposes A bank officer who did not look busy asked if she could help me.

I told her that I needed to get a printout of my bank statements for the past year, and that I had been informed when I called the bank’s 800 number that I had to do this in person.

The bank employee seemed to regard the request as routine. She left me at her desk for a few minutes and came back with a printout of the statements I needed.

I looked at them to see if it was what I wanted. Then I said to her (began to say): “I didn’t ask you for this. but I realize that the statements are only for the year ending on December 31, 2019. Could you also print out the statements for the past three months of this year [2020]?”

She heard the words “I didn’t ask you this,” and, seemingly annoyed, responded, interrupting me mid-sentence: “I gave you what you asked for.”

“Could you let me finish,” I said. “What I was saying [meant] is that even though I didn’t ask you to [my “fault”], I realize now that I need you to print out the additional statements for this year.”



This morning I called my internist’s office. The medical practice is not scheduling in person visits. Only on line or phone visits are possible. I had a medical matter that I wanted to discuss with my physician. It was not critical, but I felt I should not neglect it.

The scheduler who answered the call, after a wait, asked me the purpose of my call and then asked my name and date of birth. “I want to schedule a telephone consultation with Dr. _______,” I said.

She asked me when.

I replied as follows: “I would like to speak with the doctor as soon as possible. But it’s not an emergency.”

It was as if she didn’t hear me. She said, “When?”

“I thought I just answered that,” I said.

“Today, Thursday, Friday? WHEN,” she said.

“Well, I just said as soon as possible. But, today, since you want a date.” I tried to finish, to explain that I didn’t want to pressure the doctor, but would like to hear back, as I had explained, at his earliest possible convenience. She kept interrupting me.

She was annoyed.



My parents always spoke in complete sentences. They were well spoken and admirably clear.

No one can handle a sentence nowadays. At least the generations that came after me can’t.

The schools don’t teach this sort of thing in English classes any more. I just verified this with my wife. We both remember diagramming sentences. (Heaven forbid! So old fashioned, tedious and retrograde. It would be unthinkable to subject today’s students to such an exercise.)

My wife and I both remember learning in fifth or sixth grade English: A sentence has a subject and predicate. A sentence expresses a complete thought.

This elementary knowledge has gone by the boards. (Grammar teachers are an extinct species.) But, what’s worse, people don’t talk this way, and they often can’t comprehend or pay attention when an answer is longer than a word or two, or when someone communicates precisely, in “old fashioned” complete sentences.


— Roger W. Smith

   April 29, 2020

3 thoughts on “the demise of the sentence (remember that?)

  1. Carol Hay

    You say:

    “The schools don’t teach this sort of thing in English classes any more.”

    As an English teacher for over 30 years, recently retired, I may not have taught diagramming sentences, but I always taught my students to write well-constructed complete sentences, to avoid run-ons and fragments, to punctuate compound sentences correctly, and so on. As you know, there are times when breaking grammatical rules may be okay — the use of sentence fragments to create a certain effect or emphasis, for example. But to claim that today’s English teachers no longer teach such skills does not show a clear understanding of current grammatical instruction, including how to write a proper sentence. Such lessens have NOT disappeared at all from English classes. I myself spent a great amount of time teaching my students what you claim you and your wife learned re: subjects and predicates and the requirement that sentences express complete thoughts. You state that your wife agrees with you, but I ask: how often and how long have you both taught English, at least at the high school level at which I taught? How many English teachers have you each surveyed at present to ascertain what they DO teach re: writing sentences properly? How many classes have you actually sat in on to be able to accurately attest to your claims? To paint ALL teachers of English with the same brush, and in such a negative and misguided light, is unfair and insulting, and shows little awareness of what really goes on in the teaching of proper English today. Grammar teachers are NOT an “extinct species,” as you claim. All you needed to do to verify your claims was to ask several teachers, including me, how much time we do actually spend — or, in my case, spent — on grammar instruction, and how many lessons we devote to this. And the diagramming of sentences is not the ONLY way to teach correct sentence construction. There are many other ways as well.


    1. Roger W. Smith Post author

      You were the exception, not the rule. It’s unfortunate that you can’t credit my observations about rhetorical (sentences; their structure and use) deficiencies among most people educated post 1960’s nowadays. They are valid. I don’t have to be part of the educational system to observe something that is evident to educated, literate people.


  2. Carol Hay

    My response had nothing at all to do with your observations about rhetorical deficiencies but everything to do with your comment that teachers don’t teach these things anymore. It’s unfortunate that you totally missed my point. And you do need to have much more familiarity with how teachers are teaching in classrooms before you make accusations. You cannot say I’m the exception and not the rule unless you have spent a great deal of time studying and researching firsthand what other teachers are actually doing in the classroom. Your comments should be grounded in actual facts and not just attributed to the idea that something is merely “evident” to “educated, literate people.” I‘’m sure you would object if you read a front-page Times article (NOT an opinion essay/editorial) entitled “Teachers Don’t Teach Grammar Anymore” and then discovered that the author based his opinion on conjecture and not fact-based evidence. Teachers of Mr. Tighe’s ilk have NOT vanished from the planet. Students’ commitments to learning to read and write has unquestionably declined from when you were in school due to many societal factors. Teachers’ commitments, however, have not changed since your early school days. It’s unfortunate, too, that YOU can’t credit MY observations. It seems you have made no attempt to consider my points in a calm and measured way, but chose rather to take immediate personal offense, complaining only that I do not credit your observations. Anyway, I can see that further discussion of this would bear no fruit.



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