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Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon

By Posted on Location: 2min read
Suppose a Tulip. The Netherlands, 2017

Suppose a Sentence starts, in the way many books do, with a list of nice things intelligent people have said about the author and his work, but because this is an unabashedly intellectual book (a book for people who proudly think of themselves as being intellectual) then this fawning includes words like ‘erudite’, which to me looks like it means something inappropriate for polite company; ‘elegiac’ which I don’t know how to pronounce has little to do with the Spanish verb ‘elegir’; and ‘edifying’, which to me initially reads as closer to the word ‘edit’ than ‘educate’, like the book is one that will edit your mind, perhaps.

Some of these words strike me as fanciful.

This very good book (I’m paraphrasing) “…serves as both an autobiographia literaria and a vital exemplar of how deeply literature and language can matter in life.” I think Maggie Nelson is saying here that the book is a record of some things the author has read… but alas, as she’s using words not in my dictionary, I’m not sure. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for fancy words; I just may not understand them. Suppose a Sentence invokes a lot of shoulder shrugging.

I don’t know. Or I don’t know exactly. These apologetic phrases crop up all the time in my classes. I often teach with the dictionary open in one tab and WordReference in the next, pre-empting my students’ questions. I don’t trust my pronunciation or my spelling, and so I invariably refer to dictionaries and phonetic transcriptions to guarantee that the words my students are learning are standard, ‘correct’. It turns out that a lot of words have many meanings; sometimes sifting through to identify the writer’s intent is an intense challenge. Sometimes my students think they know what a word means, and I have to push them to reassess.

The bright light. The intelligent look. Her bright eyes …?

Careful listening, close reading, real, acute attention… these moments of deep focus can reward us with a new perspective, an insight, a fresh appreciation. And I guess that’s what this book, Suppose a Sentence, is all about. When the pandemic has bound you to the house, your social endeavours have fallen apart, all plans disintegrated, then don’t fret: one can always suppose a sentence.

If only I knew what it meant to suppose a sentence…


The quotation’s attribution reads:  Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.

‘Suppose a sentence’ is a Gertrude Stein phrase.

On the stylistic choosing of words

Flowers. Style. Flowery style. Styled flowers. Tulips so stereotypically the Netherlands, 2017.

Today, when reading Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence, I learnt that the title structure, such as mine here, starting ‘on’ was typical of Montaigne, who I haven’t read, and was played with by Virginia Woolf, who I have read, creating titles such as ‘On Illness’. Dillon writes about the introductory sentence of Woolf’s essay On Illness, which I feel I have read, although maybe I have merely read that oft-quoted first sentence. I say oft-quoted meaning I’m sure I’ve seen it quoted before and therefore assume that it’s the sort of sentence that people who have sentences to hand for demonstration frequently choose to show.

If my words are wandering today, it’s because at some point, I took a turn off the main path, followed a goat track, tripped over an unexpecting branch and left my life in a pickle trying to carve a route all of its own. Sometimes this route is carved with a machete, sometimes the butter knife. At the moment – pandemic and all – it’s definitely the butter knife style of progression I’m witnessing. In other words, I’m feeling a little disorientated. Slow even.


I am being chased by the word ‘obdurate’. Yesterday I had to look it up in the dictionary. Today I find Dillion uses it. As does the article I read in the London Review of Books this afternoon. The same thing happened fifteen years ago with the word ‘altruistic’, which followed me around until I wasn’t sure whether it was a normal everyday word, and I was dim, or it was a poncy word and better left unsaid. ‘Altruistic’ makes it into a video on elephants I’m studying with one of my students. Selfless elephants are good at caring for one another.

My writing is undoubtedly, or indubitably, mutating (albeit in a butter-knife fashion of progress). I’m reading so much and writing so much it can hardly do anything but change; yet I’m doing so ploddingly, we can hardly call anything here machete action. That said, I’m pretty stubborn – or shall I say obdurate? – about writing. It’s like a compulsion: an addiction to unravelling a language that refuses to be pinned down, my mongrel tongue, idiolectical phrasing, use of words like ‘happenence’.


But my writing mutates to what exactly? And my life is wandering where? And are the two irrevocably connected. And for a woman who spends so much time putting words on the page, why is my spelling so atrocious sometimes? And…


In addition to Dillon’s book on sentences, I find myself reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which throws you on the first page with its ‘—“I prefer men to cauliflowers,”—’ entrapped in two em-dashes, giving you no guidance as to what you’re reading and leaving you pretty much confused until a third of the way through the book where you settle down praying that dear Mrs Woolf will keep the surprising cauliflowers out of her prose and instead give you something that resembles a story.

‘—“I prefer men to cauliflowers,”—’ such a line would have been better placed in Terry Pratchett. I’ve just finished the father’s copy of Moving Pictures and that has a section referring to cabbages. Cabbages, cauliflowers… Although Pratchett most loved to use his em-dashes to end a line of dialogue. Thus the phrase might need a slight stylistic rearrangement… “I prefer men to cauli—”