- Paperback: 176 pages
- Publisher: Harper Paperbacks; Reprint edition (August 7, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 006184053X
- ISBN-13: 978-0061840531
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.4 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 123 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #36,048 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One Reprint Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
A whole book on the lowly sentence? Stanley Fish, America's English Professor, confides that he belongs "to the tribe of sentence watchers," and shares his passion and learning through an array of examples from sentence-making masters, among them Milton, James, Dr. King, Sterne, Swift, Salinger, Elmore Leonard, Conrad, and Gertrude Stein. For Fish, language is logic. He stresses how the sentence, regardless of length-whether declarative or embroidered with qualifiers-is a structure of logical relationships. He discusses the all-important opening sentence and closing sentence, especially as the latter can be isolated from its dramatic context to convey full rhetorical effect. The reader is advised to begin with form; with practice, writers can develop three basics of style (subordinating, additive, satiric) that will allow them to make an emotional impact with their words. In the end, the craft of sentence writing is elevated to the very center of our inner lives. Fish plays the opinion card well, though a piling on of example after example, particularly of long sentences drawn from literature or theology, might leave more experienced sentence-makers to cry, "Enough already!"
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
New York Times columnist and college professor Fish appreciates fine sentences the way some people appreciate fine wine. In 10 short chapters, Fish takes readers through a cogent analysis of how to craft a sentence. He talks about form, content, and style, always taking care to illustrate his points with an ample selection of judicously chosen quotations from virtuoso writers, from Milton and Shakepeare to Anton Scalia and Elmore Leonard. He then proceeds to drill down into the quotations, zeroing in on the tense, parts of speech, or precise phrasing that make the sentences sing. He also discusses famous first and last lines, always keeping in the forefront the extraordinary power of language to shape reality. And, befitting his subject matter, he does all this in the most luminous prose. He fluidly conveys the nitty-gritty details of crafting sentences, but, even more impressive, he communicates and instills in readers a deep appreciation for beautiful sentences that “do things the language you use every day would not have seemed capable of doing.” Language lovers will flock to this homage to great writing. --Joanne Wilkinson --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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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.
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.