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on January 25, 2011
Author Annie Dillard ("The Writing Life," 1989) was asked by a student, "Do you think I could be a writer?" Dillard's response: "Do you like sentences?" According to Stanley Fish, author of "How to Write a Sentence," it's as important for writers to genuinely like sentences as it is for great painters to like paint. For those who enjoy an effective sentence and all that it involves, this short (160 page) book is insightful, interesting and entertaining. For those who consider reading or writing a chore, perhaps this book can help one's interest level and motivation regarding sentences, though the author's intended audience is clearly those with a genuine interest in writing.

Fish would seem to be well qualified to write, having taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. However, as any student who has suffered with a highly qualified--yet thoroughly boring--professor knows, a significant part of the education/communication process involves instilling motivation. That's where Fish shines. If it might seem that a whole book on sentences has to be boring, Stanley Fish quickly overcomes this perception. His book is divided into 10 chapters: (1) Why Sentences?; (2) Why You Won't Find the Answer in Strunk and White [Strunk and White authored the classic, "The Elements of Style"]; (3) It's Not the Thought That Counts [nothing like a little provocation to get us interested]; (4) What Is a Good Sentence?; (5) The Subordinating Style; (6) The Additive Style; (7) The Satiric Style: The Return of Content; (8) First Sentences; (9) Last Sentences; and (10) Sentences That Are About Themselves (Aren't They All?).

Author Fish includes many examples of powerful sentences from a very wide range of writers, such as Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Cicero, Lewis Carroll, Michel de Montaigne, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens and others. Here's one illustrative example from John Updike: Describing the home run Ted Williams hit at his last at-bat in Boston's Fenway Park on September 28, 1960, Updike wrote, "It was in the books while it was still in the sky." Think about that for a minute.

In conclusion, Stanley Fish is an enthusiastic writer, and he manages to convey and transmit his enthusiasm for writing clear, effective sentences in this highly readable book. If you are interested in writing (and reading), this book is worth your careful consideration.

UPDATE on January 29, 2011: I wrote the above from the viewpoint of the reader contemplating buying this book for his or her own use. As I think more about the book, however, there's another possibility worth exploring. Specifically, this book could make a fine graduation (or other) gift to a niece, nephew or friend's child. First, it's short and easy to read, which means it might actually get read. Second, good writing is important in any profession. Third, the book helps reinforce the point that if you want to get good at something, it pays to study experts in the field. Fourth, and perhaps most important, the book supports the point that success in writing--as in virtually all endeavors--comes from practice, practice, practice. That's a pretty useful message to send any student.
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on January 27, 2011
I have long been a fan of Fish's work, both for a scholarly audience (Surprised by Sin) and a more general one (Save the World on Your Own Time). "How to Write a Sentence" really gets to the essence of what makes Fish one of the greatest living literary critics: his obvious love of language. In this deceptively simple how-to, his aesthetic appreciation of virtuosic writing, his ear for poetry, and his deep understanding of the logic and craft of sentence construction are all on display. "How to Write a Sentence" goes twelve rounds with "The Elements of Style" and remains standing. If I may venture a prediction, I'd say that a generation from now, Fish's book, and not Strunk and White's, will be considered the standard guide for those who want to know how to write a sentence and how to read one.
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on March 3, 2011
I'm a lover of sentences, so I had high expectations for this book. I was disappointed to find that most of the book, especially in the latter half, consists of the author extolling sentences he likes in an overblown style that serves to obfuscate, rather than illuminate, the sentences he is trying to parse.

The first few chapters were instructive in becoming aware of different sentence styles, independent of content -- the subordinating vs. additive styles -- and in the recognition of sentences as "forms," of which there are a limited number, that can be applied with infinite variety to a writer's purpose by adding the right content. I got a lot out of these parts of the book. Once the author begins to add content to the mix though, he quickly falls in love with his own voice, to the exclusion of (it seemed to me) the voice of the writer whose sentence he is talking about, as well as to the exclusion of my interest.

The early parts of the book did get me interested in learning more, though, about different rhetorical styles and the history of rhetoric in general. So while I don't think this book is great in itself, I do think it's a good entry point to other topics related to writing and appreciation of its skilled practitioners.
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on April 21, 2011
I enjoyed reading this book for the reason I have enjoyed much of the rest of Stanley Fish's oeuvre: he reads closely and understands the implications of language so well. Indeed, this book strikes me as a continuation of his seminal work on Milton, which also paid such close attention to syntax, the order in which words are delivered. As usual, I gained a lot from Fish's careful and wise reading.

That said, the book's purpose and audience escape me. This cannot be a book for those wishing to write better. For one thing, to even approach this book one must already be rather nimble with language; that is, to understand what it says about sentences one must already know a lot about them. For another, Fish's idea that mastering sentence form by practicing writing clever sentences is just not borne out by research in composition and rhetoric. Study after study has shown that acontextual exercises like these don't help students much at all. So I could never suggest this as a writing text (try Joseph Williams "Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace").

In the end I can only guess that the real audience for the book consists of people who enjoy the wit and insight of Stanley Fish. That would be fans like me.
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on February 1, 2011
What I like about this book, what I really like, is how Stanley Fish cares about good writing. Fish's love for sentences shines from the first page to the last; it could not be more pronounced. HOW TO WRITE A SENTENCE starts well enough, as Fish relays how a great piece of writing finds itself at the mercy of great sentences. In the first four chapters, the reader learns a few basic (somewhat technical) parts of a sentence, and how these little parts -- often taken for granted by inexperienced readers -- become building blocks to masterpieces (Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald). The next three chapters examine three different "styles" of sentences. The styles are Subordinating, Additive, Satiric, names chosen arbitrarily by Fish himself. These chapters give examples of each style from famous writers. The book rounds out with a chapter on "first sentences" (from famous books) and another on "last sentences."

In my opinion, the book contains one serious flaw.

Fish believes that good writing starts with sentence templates and ends when the writer fills in the templates with content. Fish backs his thesis with example after example of "great" sentences that adhere to his templates. Fish claims that there are a finite number of templates that can be filled with an infinite combination of words, the content. As an exercise, Fish asks the reader to "copy" the structure of simple sentences (John ate meat -- subject, verb, object) and then to fill in the template with more complex words and phrases, until the student's sentence becomes 100 words or more. In this way, Fish claims, the student may learn the craft of writing.

Such advice is boloney.

Content drives writing. Sentence style may be a necessary condition of good writing, but content drives the style, not the other way around. Not only does content drive the style of a sentence, it drives the structure of paragraphs and entire bodies of work. If every writer found a style first and then stuffed their content into (sentence, paragraph, large-scale) templates, then good writers would still be writing like they just stepped out of 9th grade English class. Thankfully, and for the sake of his book, Fish's own writing does not conform to his conventions. Fish seems to have rationalized how good writing works, but he doesn't seem to realize that he uses more intuition than he realizes.

What strikes me funny is that Fish gives example after example of what he claims to be great sentences. These sentences all appear in famous work written by famous writers. Time after time, in example after example, Fish falls victim to the same Post Hoc fallacy with which so many "writing critics" blind their ability to analyze good writing (and in turn limit their ability to improve as writers themselves). The blinded critic, Fish being no exception, finds a piece of writing already considered good by general consensus and then proceeds to explain "why" it is good.

I'll give an example from Chapter 7, "The Satiric Style." Fish uses an example from J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words.

Austin: "And we must at all costs avoid over-simplification [ironically enough], which one might be tempted to call the occupational disease of philosophers if it were not their occupation."

Fish spends an entire page analyzing this sentence and creating a sentence of his own, based on Austin's template, until finally he comes to this conclusion about his imitation: "Is there a formula here? Yes...Not as snappy and whiplike as Austin's sentence, but in the ballpark."

This book does not preach Picasso, folks. This book advocates imitation. Ladies and gentlemen, take your body and imagine it sliding gracefully and comfortably into a tailor-made Ralph Lauren suit. Next, imagine yourself stuffed into a $99 Wal-Mart special. What would you rather wear? How would you rather write?
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on February 3, 2011
This book is one of the most engaging writing books I've read, and I've read almost all of them. I was already hooked by page 6, when Fish quotes a single sentence from Justice Scalia, dissenting in a school-prayer case on the side of more school prayer: "Interior decorating is a rock-hard science compared to psychology practiced by amateurs." A casual observer might note that the sentence is catchy and punchy and then read on. But Fish goes far beyond mere admiration, showing us instead how these moving parts cohere: "The sentence is itself a rock thrown at Scalia's fellow justices in the majority; it is a projectile that picks up speed with every word; the acceleration is an effect of two past participles 'compared' and 'practiced'; their economy does not allow a pause or a taking of breath; and the sentence hurtles toward what is both its semantic and real-life destination: the 'amateurs' who are sitting next to Scalia as he spits it out."

To my mind, Fish's explanatory sentence is even more impressive than Scalia's original. It's a great example of a "Freight Train" sentence, a purposely long and balanced sentence pattern that I explain in my own writing book Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation's Top Advocates.

In the end, then, Fish's guide offers three great books in one. The original sentences are interesting on their own. Fish's detailed and thoughtful commentary shows us how to incorporate these patterns into our own sentences. And Fish's own sentences are terrific style models in their own right.

I also respectfully disagree with the reviewers who claim that books like this are a waste because "content drives style." As Fish himself concedes, citing Chomsky on pp. 26-27, a well-written sentence can be content-free or worse. Nobody argues otherwise. But by the same token, even if you have the greatest content in the world, your readers will have trouble grasping your points unless your sentences engage them. In a nutshell, style matters.
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on January 25, 2011
This book is an enjoyable read for good readers and writers, and could be quite helpful for those who struggle with syntax. All along the way, Fish raises some rather deep and interesting ideas regarding the relationship of language to reality. Highly recommended!
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Mr. Fish writes: "It is often said that language is to report or reflect or mirror reality, but the power of language is greater and more dangerous than that; it shapes reality not of course in a literal sense--the world is one thing, words another--but in the sense that the order imposed on a piece of the world by a sentence is the only one among innumerable possible orders."

"To be sure, your eventual goal is to be able to write forcefully about issues that matter to you, but if you begin with those issues uppermost in your mind, you will never get to the point where you can do verbal justice to them."

These lamentable sentences are directly from Mr. Fish's book. This book is rife with unintelligible prose--dozens on every page. Poorly written sentences -- full of extraneous adjectives, adverbs and clauses, usually starting with a weak prepositional phrase-- make reading this book like wading through a swamp in flip flops. The author's joy of sentences far outweighs his ability to write one.

A fan does not need to play cello like Yo Yo Ma to enjoy his music, so why should I care if Mr. Fish can himself write a strong sentence? Because his gross lack of self-editing, which reads like a maniacal professor on an absinthe-induced rant, becomes droll by page 20, and downright unreadable by page 65.

"Language is to reflect reality, but powerful language shapes reality by imposing order on the world."

"Your goal is to write forcefully about important issues, and do them verbal justice."

Here are the two above sentences by Mr. Fish, properly edited and more pleasant to read (admittedly, the second sentence does not convey the full meaning of Mr. Fish's sentence; his makes no sense and is thus poor in both form and content and cannot be edited successfully).

I adore a well-turned sentence. But this book strays so far from practicing what it preaches, it's a tiresome and pointless slog for the reader. The examples of wonderful sentences written by others are few and far between. Most of the text is the author himself, enjoying the clicking of his own keyboard. This book is a stream-of-consciousness pontification about quality sentences that the author himself cannot write.

Fine companions to this book would be "The Fine Art of Editing Sentences" or "The Power of Simple Declarative Sentences".

There are many better books that teach both the appreciation and the construction of simple and eloquent sentences. One example is Paula LaRocque's The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide To Writing Well. Ms. LaRocque teaches by example: she shows passable sentences revised to be excellent sentences.
The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well

A student of fine writing, as well as an appreciative reader, would do best to read the masters of simple, powerful writing: E. Hemingway, J. Steinbeck, C. McCarthy, F.S. Fitzgerald, etc.

Learn through example, rather than by being lectured from Professor Convoluted.

Two giant thumbs down. One look at the titles of the other books by Stanley Fish (please take a moment to review his bibliography) will prove that Mr. Fish is not one for concise and powerful writing -- even his book titles are mind-numbing.

A true disappointment as I wanted to like this book.

!!Have a wonderful day!!
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on March 18, 2011
The book is a quick read, concise and complex at the same time, and I found myself running around to find my highlighter whenever I happened to be reading the book in a room where the highlighter was absent. Many gold nuggets in here, starting from the first chapter. Fish invites into his world of wisdom with this: "Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere. Once the words are nestled in the places 'ordained' for them - 'ordained' is a wonderful word that points to the inexorable logic of synaptic structures - they are tied by ligatures of relationships to one another . . . they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate, admire, reject or refine." Love that.

I admit I shuddered when I got Chapter Two. There were a few moments of tense hyperventilation as I considered Fish's pronouncement that Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" is deficient (gasp!). But as I focused on my breathing and read on, I saw his point. Form (Strunk & White) is only architecture. The building still has to be beautiful for me to want to live there.

My favorite chapters, now glistening with yellow ribbons of highlighted text, are "First Sentences" and "Last Sentences." They are brimming with examples from the classics as well as modern-day gems. They are chapters to savor, to read again, to ponder. Sentence artists like me and my writing colleagues must do something more memorable with those last words than to figuratively bow to our partner and mumble, "thanks for the dance."

That's why we writers need books like this one. You still need Strunk & White, on your shelf (or reader) and in your head, but you need this one, too.
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on August 10, 2015
A disappointment. This book starts out promisingly but then takes a nosedive, and the promise is never realized. And by the epilogue, the reader is no more able to write a decent sentence than when he first started reading.

If you need to learn how to write a sentence, look elsewhere: you won't learn it here.

Chapter two opens with a negative criticism of Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style." The criticism is unwarranted because it is totally misguided. "The Elements of Style" is a guide for college students, who need to write term papers and the like. What Mr. Fish proposes to teach is a literary style of writing sentences: a very specific aim that should be stated in the subtitle, but isn't. Mr. Fish has a different goal from what Strunk and White had, and that's why his criticism of them is unfair.

The analysis of sentences is, in this book, taken too far. It is too detailed to be of any use for the average person. Instead of enjoying the scenery of the forest, Mr. Fish takes us on a tour of the individual trees:

This tree here is angled at 75 degrees relative to the flat ground, and that signifies this and that. That other tree there is taller and rounder and is rooted in more elevated ground, and that means this, that, and the other. And the fact that that bird is perched on that slender branch changes the whole complexion of that tree. The tree without any birds perching on it is missing a certain quality that makes it bland; and hence ill-suited to birds vying for a love interest.

The above is not actually in the book; it's just my way of explaining what it's like to read Mr. Fish's super detailed analysis of sentences.

To be fair, this book has its uses: learning to write straightforward sentences is not one of them.

Let me analyze the above sentence the way (I think) Mr. Fish analyzes sentences in his book:

The sentence starts out with "to be fair"; it promises us that what follows will be either positive or at the very least balanced. And, indeed, the next part of the sentence fulfills its promise with "this book has its uses," a positive statement. The second half of the sentence starts with "learning", which connects with the previous part of the first half--learning is the "use" that is referred to in the second part of the first half; it promises us that we will be learning something; perhaps, something useful. The infinitive phrase "to write straightforward sentences" keeps us in suspense because we don't know how the sentence will end; it drags out the sentence to emphasize its final point. But then we encounter a "not" that shakes up the whole meaning of the statement. Finally, "one of them" refers back to "uses", and the whole meaning of the second half of the sentence has been reversed. The positive statement that we were expecting, is dangled in front of us, and we feel excitement and satisfaction, but then at the last moment it all gets taken away. And we are disappointed--and dissatisfied. We are propped up in the first half, only to be shot down in the second. What a reversal of fortune. That sentence makes a profound statement about life: about how we can be on top of the world one moment and at the bottom the next, about the uncertainty of life--about the vicissitudes and vagaries of life, about how we can fall precipitously in an instant--never to get up again.

Having said all of the above, I admit that Mr. Fish has great powers of literary analysis, something I can only dream of having. This book is okay. It would be better if, in it, he would teach us how to analyze the way he does; then maybe, we could truly learn how to write a sentence (and how to read one).
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