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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 September 30, 2015
How to write a sentence. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? There, I've just written two. In the second, I omitted the subject which should probably be "It"; that is, "It sounds simple . . . ." This "It" standing for "How to write a sentence," the second "it" standing in for "sound simple."

As a native English speaker, I can crank out sentences and analyses like these all day long. Why would I want to read Stanley Fish's thin book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One?

Because he will make me—and you—think about sentences, which are, after all, basic to the writer's trade. For example, what is a sentence? Fish points out that writing guides offer answers: "A sentence is a complete thought." "A sentence contains a subject or a predicate." "Sentences consist of one or more clauses that bear certain relationships to one another." He says that "far from being transparent and inclusive, these declarations come wrapped in a fog; they seem to skate on their own surface and simply don't go deep enough."

Okay, professor, what does go deeper? "Well, my bottom line can be summarized in two statements: (1) a sentence is an organization of items in the world; and (2) a sentence is a structure of logical relationships." A random list of items, for example, is not a sentence. He quotes Anthony Burgess: "And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning." In Fish's formula, "Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation."

He discusses sentence form and how to turn a list of words into a sentence, using the Noam Chomsky example: "furiously sleep ideas green colorless" which can be turned into something meaningful (or more meaningful) as "colorless green ideas sleep furiously," which could be a line of poetry. The question one has to ask oneself when writing a sentence is "What am I trying to do?"

"It is often said," he writes, "that the job of 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 the 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 only one among innumerable possible orders." And every time you revise a sentence, add a modifier, delete a clause, change a tense you've changed that "reality."

Once Fish has discussed sentences generally, he spends three chapters describing the subordinating style, the additive style, and the satiric style of sentences with examples. Here is a sample of the satiric style. J. L. Austin cautioning readers not to be impatient with the slow unfolding of his argument: "And we must at all costs avoid over-simplification, which one might be tempted to call the occupational disease of philosophers if it were not their occupation."

With practical suggestions of how to form an infinite number of sentences using a relatively few forms, Fish offers chapters on first sentences—"One day Karen DeCilia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca" (Elmore Leonard)—and last—"He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance" (Mary Shelley). Wonderful stuff for any writer who is struggling to start a piece or finish one.

The last chapter, "Sentences That Are About Themselves (Aren't They All?)" summarizes and extends the discussion to works like Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier in which the narrator in telling one story is, as the reader comes to realize, unconsciously telling another story entirely.

Every serious writer should keep How to Write a Sentence on the bookshelf to take down every year or so and read once again.
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on April 4, 2014
I have to be honest, I can't stand "How to" books. It is mostly because "How to" books almost always purport to teach you something that cannot be written down in a single book. However, sometimes they do get the job done. In my experience the best books of this genre are the ones that mix of practical advice with a general overview of a number of abstract concepts that will be helpful in digging deeper into the subject. I'm not sure this book accomplishes that. Based on the title I was expecting a book that teaches primarily how to write sentences while also learning how to read them.

Fish seems to suggest exercises but I don't really see any concrete explanations or examples on how to do them. It would have been a lot easier to understand if he formatted the sections differently. Perhaps adding a exercise section at the end of each chapter or labeling different concepts would have been helpful.

It was difficult for me to follow the organization of the book. His choice of topics for each chapter seemed arbitrary; I couldn't figure out how they fit into me learning how to write and read more effectively. I wasn't sure why I should follow his concepts and not someone else's. The chapters are portrayed as something you need to know in order to write and read effectively, but they come off as one person's preferences.

There are some good nuggets in this book, but I think if you're looking for what the main title suggests you will be disappointed. I wasn't expecting to finish this book as an expert on writing (if there is such a thing) but I figured it would give me at least a few good ideas of where to go next.
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on April 20, 2017
Nice little book that gave me some great inspiration and ideas on how to write sentences in my creative work. Not as helpful for business writing, but still a non-nonsense book that doesn't take for granted you knowing everything about sentence structures.
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on December 27, 2012
In honor of the nature of Fish's book, I'll start by deconstructing (pardon the term) a couple sentences, each from back cover blurbs. "Whether people like Stanley Fish or not, they tend to find him fascinating." Here the New Yorker starts by implying that you may have less taste, but they certainly don't like Stanley Fish. They finish by damning with the faintest of praise (Fascinating? Really?). "Stanley Fish just might be America's most famous professor." BookPage makes sure to cabin (professors only) its questionable praise (is a professor's goal really to become the most famous?) and, again, not mention the merits of the book at all.

Desultory blurbs notwithstanding, this is a fine book on the art of writing, and Fish sees the sentence as THE building block of writing. Note that the traditional English parts of speech that Fish denigrates refer to the role a word plays in the sentence. Fish agrees with their detractors because the traditional English parts of speech aren't really tools, but just definitions. Learning them doesn't give you the skills to construct great sentences.

The problem is that Fish doesn't really give the reader a toolkit to construct great sentences either. Rather, he talks about the use of a handful of forms, gives informal exercises that the reader could do (I didn't do these, but I think they would be worthwhile), gives examples, and analyzes a number of sentences. Perhaps what Fish is trying to do demands this treatment, but there are still necessary tools. The title "How to Write a Sentence" implies that those won't be left out.

But it should not be assumed that just because Fish doesn't enforce strict rules that what he's trying to teach the reader to do is easy. After all, "[a]lthough it might seem as if writing in the additive style is just a matter of putting one thing after another in no particular order (how can that be hard?), it is in fact the more difficult style to master; for the relative absence of formal constraints means that there are no rules or recipes for what to do because there are no rule or recipes for what not to do." What Fish has on so many style book authors is that he understands the demands of language go beyond any formal rules. Because of that, How to Write a Sentence is the rare book on writing that can be equally valuable to any writer, regardless of what kind of writing they do.
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on March 4, 2013
If not for anything else, Stanley Fish's "How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One" made me understand why I love the authors I love so much. It put me back in touch with Pater, Stein, Woolf, Hemingway, and so many other writers that I devoured back in college and in graduate school. Normally, I dislike having the works I love dissected, deconstructed, whatever, because it is done so, usually, to meet some political agenda. In the case of Fish's work, it is done so for the reader's appreciation of the text and an appreciation of the writer's labor. What follows after all this appreciation, it is hoped, will be an ability for anyone interested in writing to do so with command, style and clarity. (However, I must admit that I am extremely self-conscious of my writing right now.)

As an instructor of freshman English composition, however, I am reluctant to pooh-pooh Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style". While I understand Fish's complaint about its use (or over-use), I cannot dismiss "The Elements of Style" so quickly. Too many students have found it valuable. I am, however, considering using "How to Write a Sentence..." for my more advanced classes and elective writing courses.

One last note, I got the hardcover, in nearly perfect condition, for under $10. Maybe I should write something called "How to Buy a Book."

Maybe not.

Rocco Dormarunno
The College of New Rochelle
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on February 22, 2013
If you're looking for a book that will tell you "how to write great sentences in 3 minutes a day,", don't bother. But if you're willing to take some time to explore how effective sentences work and how you can learn write them, then get this book, read it, re-read it, and most importantly, do what it says.

Writing in a leisurely, associative style, Fish offers several helpful features I've not found in other books on writing. First, he explores at some length how a sentence conveys meaning through its logical structure, or form. Second, he analyzes a number of powerful sentences, walking the reader step by step through each one, showing how it achieves its effects.

Finally, Fish encourages writers to copy or improvise on a given form - for example, write as many simple subject-verb-object sentences as you can. If this approach seems simple-minded, it's not. Fish calls this the Karate Kid method of learning how to write. Like a karate student practicing basic movements, or a golfer practicing his swing, "You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free." In another passage, ". . . forms are the engines of creativity."

In his essay "Of Studies," Francis Bacon wrote, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." Fish's How to Write a Sentence is surely one of these latter few, and serious writers will find it richly nourishing.
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on November 8, 2014
If one of your personal goals is to be a better writer, buy this book. Mr. Fish will guide you trough the intricacy of the English language. Through reading his examples and doing his suggested excercises you will emerge as both a better writer and a reader. Ymoreou will want to reread the novels and stories that you loved and as a better informed reader, observe how writing works. You, should, if possible buy the book, not the Kindle version. This is a book to hold and feel, to make marks in when necessary, to read when you are winding down for evening, to take to bed with you thereby insuring thoughtful dreams, and to take to your local cafe and write a few good sentences yourself.
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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 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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