Sunday, October 23, 2011
Week 43: How to Write a Sentence
How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish
The sentence is the building block of writing, and Stanley Fish devotes his book to playing with, admiring, analyzing, and imitating the best sentences he knows. What makes a truly great sentence?
Wait, before we get to that, what is a sentence? Fish gives his own definition of what a sentence really is, and in passing he dismisses traditional grammatical teaching--both the usual definitions of a sentence and all the rest of it as well. This is the one part of the book that I take exception to; he repeats the claims (noted in my review of The War on Grammar) that teaching grammar does nothing to improve writing and provides a sophisticated definition of a sentence. The only trouble with his definition is that it's one for adults, not one a child can understand at all. The traditional definition, "A sentence is a group of words that forms a complete thought," is not easily understandable to a young child either, but it can at least be explained and grasped over time. I'd vote for sticking with it until students are older and can start to wrap their minds around "A sentence is a) an organization of items in the world, and b) a structure of logical relationships." That definition then takes several pages of explanation.
Once Fish has defined the essence of sentences to his satisfaction, he continues on to describe and analyze some of the myriad ways to write a good one. There is a lot of very valuable analysis here, for readers (like me) and especially for developing writers. An adult or older high-school student who wants to write can find plenty to learn and practice on in this book, so I would recommend it to anyone with literary ambitions, or for English majors--or, in fact, for those taking college English courses under duress. Impress your instructor with your insight and understanding!