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How to Write a Sentence

The problem with Strunk & White, in Fish’s view, is that “they assume a level of knowledge and understanding only some of their readers will have attained,” that is, the Cornell kids whose secondary education did at least a halfway decent job of teaching them the basics.

…Fish’s aim is to offer a guide to sentence craft and appreciation that is both deeper and more democratic. What, at base, is a sentence? he asks, and then goes on to argue that the standard answer based in parts of speech and rules of grammar teaches students “nothing about how to write”. Instead, we should be examining the “logical relationships” within different sentence forms to see how they organise the world. His argument is that you can learn to write and later become a good writer by understanding and imitating these forms from many different styles. Thus, if you’re drawn to Jonathan Swift’s biting satire in the sentence, “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse,” then, Fish advises, “Put together two mildly affirmative assertions, the second of which reacts to the first in a way that is absurdly inadequate.” He offers, “Yesterday I saw a man electrocuted and it really was surprising how quiet he became.” Lame, and hardly Swift, as Fish is the first to admit, but identifying the logical structure does specify how satire functions at the level of the sentence and, if you want to employ the form, that’s a good thing to know. …

…Fish’s book doesn’t reach this far. We get no analysis of Japanese cell-phone novels or the best of the blogosphere. But for those, and I would count myself among them, who fell in love with literature not by becoming enthralled to books they couldn’t put down but by discovering individual sentences whose rhythm and rhetoric was so compelling they couldn’t help but repeat them to anyone who would listen, it is a blessed replacement to that old Strunkian superego forever whispering in your ear – cut, cut, cut. …

Read the entire review in the Financial Times

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