Best. Sentence. Ever.

How-to-Write-a-SentenceWhat’s the best sentence in the English language? New York Times columnist Stanley Fish’s new book, How To Write a Sentence and How to Read One, does exactly what its title suggests: explores the mechanics of superior sentence construction and also steps back and appreciates some of the greats. Fish picked five of his favorite sentences over on Slate, and they’re pretty hard to argue with. His picks include:

John Bunyan (from The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678): “Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began crying after him to return, but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life! Life! eternal life.”

Ford Madox Ford (from The Good Soldier, 1915): “And I shall go on talking in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.”

Gertrude Stein (from Lectures in America, 1935): “When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had commas and semi-colons to do with it what had commas to do with it what had periods to do with it what had small letters and capitals to do with writing going on which was at the time the most profound need I had in connection with writing.”

Of course this sent me scurrying to dig up my favorite lines, but they all seem sort of weak in comparison to those heavy hitters. Still, in the spirit of sharing, my two nominees:

W.E.B. Du Bois (from The Souls of Black Folk, 1903):“Fly, my maiden, fly, for yonder comes Hippomenes!”

Basically anything from the chapter “Of the Wings of Atalanta” would be an acceptable nomination, but the closing line just destroys me.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (from The Great Gatsby, 1925): “That any one should care in this heat whose flushed lips he kissed, whose head made damp the pajama pocket over his heart!”

We’re not going to make this list without some line from Gatsby, right?

Let’s hear it, PopWatchers: What are your nominees for the best sentence in the English language? Is it a Shakespeare line? Chaucer? Joyce? Nabokov?


Comments (161 total) Add your comment
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  • Jackie

    Gotta go with Shakespeare:

    “Journeys end in lovers meeting,
    Every wise man’s son doth know.”

    • LOL

      The Bunyan sentence is just awful.

      • tia

        “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
        Gotta go with Austen on this one. Alliteration gets me everytime… Want of Wife. Puts me in mind of “Fool of a Took” as well.


    “I AIM TO MISBEHAVE.” – Malcolm Reynolds (SERENITY)

    • Jackie

      Love it! My favorite ‘Firefly’ one is: “When you can’t run, you crawl, and when you can’t do that, you find someone to carry you.”

      • Lea

        How do you do a eye rolling emoticon? The show/movie was *not* that good.

      • Jackie

        There’s a reason they’re called ‘opinions’, Lea. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s not good.

      • TW

        and conversely, just because you like something doesn’t mean it’s good.
        it’s a discussion board. people are here to discuss their opinions.

      • Temp

        “My days of not taking you seriously sure are coming to a middle”

  • Caiti

    hen in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

    One sentence. Thomas Jefferson. Declaration of Independence.

    • Katja

      That’s a pretty great one.

    • helene

      here here!
      (hear hear?)

  • Aimee

    Lolita. Light of my Life, Fire of my Loins.

    • Buddymoore


    • Summer

      Seconded. This.

    • Grammar Marm

      Isn’t that two sentences?

      • Rush

        The first isn’t technically a sentance; the period allows for a pregnant pause.

      • Rush

        Err, sorry, sentence.

      • henrietta

        Actually, the first two words are separated by a comma – so it does qualify as one sentence.

    • Alex

      Agreed. Also a big fan of the opening lines of Pale Fire: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / by the false azure of the windowpane.” Shivery good.

      • Patrick B

        Haven’t read it but agreed…killer line.

    • Robert

      Eye chiwawa! watch out, She’s a hot one.

  • Muffy

    Party Crasher,
    Penny Snatcher,
    Call me up if you want gangsta
    Don’t be fancy, just get dancey
    Why so serious?

    from Pink’s “Raise your Glass”
    Just kidding, I hate what she does to the English language, but I do admit to singing along.

  • Stevie G

    In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

    • LB

      yay! this single line sucked me into the hobbit hole when I was 13 and before I knew it I was done with the book!

  • Muffy

    If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams.

    I don’t know if its the best, but I like it.

    • Liz

      That’s good!! Who wrote that?!

  • Dan Daoust

    “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.”

    The opening line of Underworld, by Don Delillo.

  • cole

    Well thats like, your opinion man.

    • Crystal

      THIS!! My favorite line from the Big Lebowski! So simple and so great!

      ” . . . Or you can call me El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.”

      • Crystal

        That’s just another good quote btw. cole said the best one.

      • Jordy

        Lebowski is one great sentence after another, but in my opinion, man, this one is the best: “Hey, careful, man, there’s a beverage here!”

  • Zip

    You should listen to yesterday’s episode of Talk of the Nation on Fish was on and callers called in with their favorite sentences and he talked about why they were great. It was fun and neat I liked Fish alot he made a good guest.

    • henrietta

      The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I’ve come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me.

  • dave

    “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes!” – Zora Neale Hurston. ok, more than 1 sentence, but still pretty awesome.

  • Cris

    I find that music often contains beautiful imagery and creative sentences. And few are as stunning in their beauty as this classic from the Pussycat Dolls:
    “Nobody gonna love me better, Imma stickwitchu forever.”

  • arielle

    “i am a fist for your vanished air”

    • henrietta

      It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

      • lefty

        just started this book yesterday. it has several good sentences so far :)

  • Pamela

    Yeah, Gatsby’s gotta be there:

    “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.”

    • melissa

      Love that one.

  • Bwana

    Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury: “The Endured”

    Fitzgerald, Gatsby: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

    Frankfurter, Barnett case: One who belongs to the most vilified and persecuted minority in history is not likely to be insensible to the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution-but as judges we are neither Jew nor Gentile, neither Catholic nor agnostic.

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