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"I SEE Howard is in favour of longer sentences," says the lawyer. "I prefer shorter ones myself," says the writer, forgetting that Mr Howard is our popular Home Secretary, squaring up to the criminals again. But which meaning came first? Well, neither really.

The word is from the Latin sententia, which came from sensus, or "sense", but not so much the "sense" (generally sound, or common) that one first thinks of: it was more to do with feeling than with thinking. In the 14th century a sentence was first of all a personal insight. Then it rapidly hardened up to mean a considered opinion. (The old shades of meaning survive in the word sentiment - a sentiment is an opinion, whereas sentiment, without the article, is a feeling.)

A sentence used to be a verdict as well as what Michael Howard means by it. A judge would say to a defendant: "My sentence is ..." The first instance found by the OED of anyone saying "Your sentence", comes from Shakespeare, in a comic scene in Love's Labour's Lost. But what about the writer's sort of sentence?

If a layman's sentence was mere opinion, when it came from a learned Father it could be something more - an aphorism, or maxim, to be pored over by the devout. Or it could be a passage from Scripture (perhaps more than one sentence long, like some of the s that begin the Anglican burial service). It was the grammarians who seized the word to mean what the OED calls "the grammatically complete expression of a single thought", and they are still arguing about what exactly is, or is not, a sentence.

I had supposed the lawyers' meaning had a longer ancestry than the grammarians', until I discovered that sententia was already being used by the Roman author Cicero to mean a grammatical sentence. Always a versatile word.

Nicholas Bagnall