Sentence (meanings)

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This page is an account of the different meanings, and how they developed, of sentence. AWE also has articles on

the grammatical concept of sentence; and
the spelling of sentence
  • Sentence began as an abstract noun (sententia, plural sententiae) formed from the Latin verb sentire 'to feel'. or 'to hold an opinion. So a sentence was originally an opinion. This meaning became obsolete in the Early Modern English period.
A famous quotation from the Roman author Terence reads "quot homines tot sententiae" (Phormio, l. 454): 'there are as many opinions as there are people'. The line continues "suo' quoique mos, 'to every one his own way'.
    • In the Middle Ages, when Roman Catholicism was the only religion in England, 'The Sentences' was Peter Lombard's (c. 1100-60) Sententiarum libri quatuor ('the Four Books of the Sentences'), a collection of the opinions of the Fathers of the Church on matters of doctrine. Lombard was Bishop of Paris, and known as Magister Sententiarum ('Master of the Sentences'); his book was the fundamental textbook of theology for the thirteenth century.
    • From 'opinion' it came to mean 'a judgement', or 'an authoritative opinion' issued by a respected person to decide a matter at issue.
  • Until well into the nineteenth century, a sentence could be any decision by a court of law.
    • Now, however, the term is only normally used for a decision about the punishment to be imposed on someone found guilty by the verdict. (In a criminal case, a verdict, from Old French veir 'true' dit 'said', is the decision, originally by a jury and now often by a judge, with or without a jury, as to the guilt of the person accused of the crime. A sentence is the appropriate punishment decided by a judge to be inflicted on the guilty person. Don't confuse 'verdict' and 'sentence'.) This meaning gives us the verb 'to sentence', whose only current use in normal English is 'to condemn to a punishment', 'to announce the court's [i.e. the judge's] decision as to punishment of a convicted person'.
  • Also used until the nineteenth century was the meaning "A quoted saying of some eminent person, an apophthegm. Also, a pithy or pointed saying, an aphorism, maxim" (OED), which survives nowadays in the adjective sententious which is normally now used pejoratively, meaning 'pompous', 'obvious [but given with pretensions of great weight]', 'pretentiously formal'.
  • Only in the fifteenth century does sentence come to have the grammatical meaning that is probably most familiar to most native speakers of English. See further sentence (grammar).