In the Time of Declarative Sentences

In a recent essay in The Guardian about whether America can ever recover from what happened after 9/11, the American feature writer Gary Younge says:

An effective response to 9/11 that would have truly satisfied the American public in that moment probably did not exist. A combination of diplomatic pressure, targeted intelligence-led operations and a more enlightened foreign policy was what would have been and has proved to be most successful. But following the attacks, when declarative sentences were the only ones heard, and those who urged caution and restraint were compared to Neville Chamberlain, something more urgent, punitive and impressive was insisted upon.

It was the word declarative that caught the eye of Professor Bob Borsley of the University of Essex, who pointed the article out to me. The author cannot possibly mean what he says. “Declarative sentences” has only one meaning in contemporary English: It means sentences having the characteristics of, or the effect of making, a statement or declaration. Most usually it means being of type 1 in the standard classification of clause types:

1 declarative You should be very grateful.
2 closed interrogative Should you be very grateful?
3 open interrogative How grateful should you be?
4 imperative Be very grateful.
5 exclamative How grateful you should be!


Sometimes “declarative” is also used to mean having the semantic property that syntactically declarative sentences often have, the property of making a truth claim. Computer scientists contrast imperative programming languages with declarative ones: A clause in an imperative programming language gives an instruction for what the machine should do next, whereas a clause in a declarative language merely states what the result of applying a certain function is. (To give a nonnumerical example, it’s the difference between an approach to superscripting that says “now switch to a point size 42 percent smaller and raise the baseline by 90 percent of the current x-height” and one that says “the superscript version of a character is a version of that character in a point size 42 percent smaller and with the baseline raised by 90 percent of its x-height.”)

But there is no sense of the word declarative that gives it the force Younge needs. He seems to think he can use “declarative sentences” to mean “sentences expressing an extreme assertiveness and pugnacity.” That’s the only meaning that would make sense in the context, where using “declarative” is counterposed to urging “caution and restraint,”  and equated with insisting on “urgent, punitive, and impressive” measures.

What’s happening here is that a term from the realm of grammar is being picked up and used not in its original sense but in a sense that the user feels it ought to have, from its look and feel. People do that with grammatical terms. I think the reason is simply that grammar is so badly taught (if taught at all) that no one ever corrects such things.

I have seen something analogous before, much more often, with the term “passive” (or “passive voice”). That is a long story, too long to tell here. But I will try to tell a shortened version of it in another post, on another day.

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