How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One - Stanley Fish The trouble with the study of sentences is that, with the exception of aphorisms and such like, the subjects being studied do not live in isolation. Fish himself compares great sentences to great sports plays, sometimes they can be plucked from a text (or game) and admired as a great feat. "What a play!" "What a sentence!" What's missing, however, is the surrounding circumstances. A great play in game one of the season does not have the same gravitas as one completed in the last seconds of a championship game, just as great sentences are set off, or obscured, by the works in which we find them. Jane Eyre's "Reader, I married him," in its wonderful directness, would not have a tenth of its power without all that came before it. Which brings me to the more worrying part of Fish's philosophy: that form trumps content in importance when learning to write. On several occasions, he offers his readers the exercise of substituting their own phrases into the formal structures of some of his examples, which makes up the "how to write" aspects of this volume -- though of course there is the admonition that sentences made this way will be inferior to the original. (No duh!) It's vitally important to learn formal aspect of writing, but to teach form without close regard to content is patently ridiculous, not to mention disheartening for a new writer itching with ideas and opinons. "I'm going to write a subordinate sentence, what content would be effective in this form?" vs. "I have a proposition in mind, what form of sentence would be the most clear and elegant vehicle for it?" Though many of the sentences Fish puts forward for examination are indeed beautiful, clear, effective and fresh -- even when they are four hundred years old -- the manner in which he considers the subject as a whole put me off so much that I found my enjoyment of them tainted. Like a fine wine left too long in the open air.