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Book Review: How to Write a Sentence

I never thought I would read a book entitled How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One; even less did I think I would enjoy one. Yet, here I am and I can do no other.

Stanley Fish writes a book in which he introduces the sentence as a work of art. Not only does he succeed in convincing you that it is art, but he then succeeds at teaching you how to be a connoisseur of that art. His stated goal for the book is "to bring you into the little worlds made cunningly by as many writers as I can cram into a short book." He promises, "to give you both sentence pleasure and sentence craft, the ability to appreciate a good sentence and the ability to fashion one." He succeeds.

He begins with form. He isn't concerned with the categories of words: nouns, verbs, adjectives, predicates, etc. Not because they aren't important—they are, he says—but because his focus is upon the form those words take when put together into sentences. That doesn't mean those categories can be ignored, rather that they are not the end for sentence craft. He then defines what a sentence is, less with a dictionary definition—his is "a sentence is an organization of items in the world, a structure of logical relationships"—and more with examples of finely crafted sentences.

From there, he moves into developing both sentence pleasure and sentence craft, simultaneously. The first task is to establish one in the sentence craft—which, for him, means mastering the form first. Fish assigns an exercise in which one takes a very short sentence "John hit the ball," and expands it to a 15-word sentence, a 30-word sentence, and finally a 100-word sentence. This is done without ever losing the original meaning of the sentence "John hit the ball."

In the next exercise, again meant to focus on form rather than content, he takes the first stanza of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" and asks the reader to replace the nonsense words with good English words. One could take any poem (or have someone else do it for you) and replace random words with nonsense words. You, then, would put good English words back into the poem, focusing on the fact that only certain types of words can go into any one of the slots. The goal is to start understanding and articulating why an adverb has to go here, and a noun there. Substituting, Fish says, is the easy part, explaining how you knew to do it is the hard part.

All the while working through these exercises, Fish is introducing the reader to fine sentences. But, even as he introduces these fine sentences, he slowly and courteously explains what makes them fine. He points out the word order, the structure, certain words that hinge the thoughts together, or ways in which the author is able to slow down a fast-moving sentence at just the right moment, or speed up a slow-moving sentence.

He also explains how some sentences fall into categories; the first he calls the subordinating style (Andrew Kern has referred to it as the rational sentence.) He then gives examples of subordinating sentences, with exercises to mimic them and learn to write them. Then he introduces the additive style (what Andrew Kern refers to as organic writing.) Again, exercises are provided so that the reader can mimic and write additive sentences. Finally, he introduces the satiric sentence. The satiric sentence is important because it teaches the writer to write a sentence that "doesn't quite come out and say what it is saying, and what it is saying is often devastating." It teaches the writer to have control over his writing, in that "it is a mode of writing characterized by great control of tone over the length of sentences, paragraphs, and sometimes entire volumes." Satiric sentences are, of course, coupled with exercises and examples to mimic.

After introducing the reader to (and making him comfortable with) the categories of sentences, he goes over two sentence types that don't really qualify as categories: first sentences and last sentences. These sentences are special because they have specific goals that have to be achieved if they are to do their job well. Breaking this down in and of itself helps the reader (and potential writer) to understand them better and to be able to produce them himself.

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One is an important book, not just for readers and writers, but also for parents and children. It helps you to appreciate sentences, of course, but more importantly helps you to communicate through them. In a world of tweets and LOL's, this is a quickly dying art form—but, an art it is. And so what better description can I give of this book than that it is—as a good friend said—“the right-brained person's Strunk & White."

CATEGORIES: Grammar Stage (ages 4 to 11)

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