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How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

3.6 out of 5 stars 100 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 858-0001069739
ISBN-10: 0061840548
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Editorial Reviews

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!"
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From Booklist

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
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (January 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061840548
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061840548
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (100 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #122,042 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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?).
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Format: Hardcover
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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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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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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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.
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