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How to Write a Sentence

A hackneyed subject I would take and treat 
So deftly, all should hope to do the feat,
Then, having strained and struggled, should concede
To do the feat were difficult indeed.
So much may order and arrangement do

To make the cheap seem choice, the threadbare new.

Thus does Horace, the great poet and critic of Rome’s Augustan Age, advise two rich young aristocrats in his influential verse epistle, “The Art of Poetry.” Some 1800 years later, during England’s Augustan Age, the Neoclassical poet and critic Alexander Pope, reflecting back on Horace’s sage advice, would declare in his own verse epistle, “An Essay on Criticism,” that

True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.

Though Horace and Pope wrote with reference to poetry, Stanley Fish’s newest book, How to Write a Sentence, demonstrates not only that the same kind of careful order and arrangement goes into the writing of a good sentence, but that in prose as well as verse, form is as important as content. But Professor Fish, a prolific writer and scholar of the 17th century who has taught English and law at such schools as the University of California at Berkley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and, currently, Florida International University, is more democratic than either Horace or Pope. He really believes that all of us can learn to write good sentences, and his book proves to be remarkably effective at teaching us how.

Not Impressed with Strunk and White

Unlike most teachers and writers of grammars, Fish neither surveys the parts of speech nor regales us with a list of dos and don’ts; instead, he provides us with a clear, concise definition of what a sentence is: “a structure of logical relationships.” His reason for doing so is both theoretical and practical: “Technical knowledge, divorced from what it is supposed to be knowledge of, yields only the illusion of understanding.” Merely memorizing the difference between subjects and objects or the rules for semi-colon usage won’t do us any good, and may even lead us astray, if we have not first grappled with sentences as sentences. Yes, at the core of most sentences is what Fish calls “the ‘doer-doing-done to’ structure” (that is, subject-verb-object), but if we want to understand what the sentence is doing with the words that make it up, then we need to understand how the other words and phrases group themselves around and attach themselves to the agent or the action or the thing acted upon.

Before proceeding to discuss how Fish empowers us to see what sentences do, I must pause to address one aspect of How to Write a Sentence that may stop readers in their tracks before they give Fish the hearing he richly deserves. Fish provocatively (belligerently?) titles his second chapter, “Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White,” and, indeed, he holds up the canonical Elements of Style as the poster child for grammars that hurt more than they help. Still, I assure all would-be readers that Fish’s book does not offer a diatribe against Strunk and White, nor, more importantly, does it lash out at traditional teaching methods.

In fact, the oddest thing about Fish’s book is that the advice he gives is not all that different from the approach taken by the most conservative, dyed-in-the-wool writing teachers-diagramming sentences. Though the very last page of the book includes a quote from Gertrude Stein that mentions diagramming sentences, Fish himself never once references the discipline. As Fish is a prodigiously savvy writer, I can only assume that his refusal to use the phrase “diagramming sentences,” when that is exactly what he spends the bulk of his book doing, is done for a very specific purpose: to coax readers with an aversion to diagramming sentences into seeing that the unpacking of a sentence’s syntax (the way the words and phrases are arranged) can be a truly exciting adventure. By eschewing both charts and technical language in favor of a strictly narrative approach, Fish opens up for the common reader the beauty and wonder of that tight little microcosm we call the sentence.

A Wild Syntactical Ride

So, if the lovers of Strunk and White will put aside their suspicions, and the haters of diagramming sentences will put aside their fears, then we can proceed to join Fish on a wild syntactical ride. To get us warmed up, and to prove to us that the logical structure of a sentence holds true even when the content is nonsensical, he quotes for us the opening lines of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Though the line “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves” does not make sense, we all recognize its form. For example, we all know instinctively that if we were to substitute “real” words for “slithy toves,” they would have to form an adjective-noun compound (“spotted giraffes” or “swift-footed cheetahs” or “wrinkly elephants”) and not, say, a verb-adverb compound (“drove quickly” or “screamed loudly”). What the exercise highlights is not that form is more important than content but that form has a logic of its own apart from content and that the form is the necessary vehicle through which the content emerges.

To help us understand-in order that we may appreciate and imitate-the various forms that sentences can take, Fish does two basic things: 1) he quotes and then “narratively diagrams” award-winning sentences from such prose luminaries as John Donne and John Milton, George Eliot and Ford Madox Ford, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway; 2) he trains us how, step by step, to mimic the forms employed by these masters by creating his own on-the-spot imitations.

Though such an approach could have made for dull reading, How to Write a Sentence is anything but dull! Fish draws us into the very heart of the sentences he analyzes and makes them come alive with all their tensions and exhilarations and deferrals in place. We see their beauty as well as their functionality, their gleaming exteriors and their solid architectonics. Fish even treats us to a string of masterful opening sentences that “lean forward, inclining in the direction of the elaborations they anticipate,” memorable closing lines that leave us with an elegiac sense of loss and finality, and self-conscious, self-referential sentences that magically fuse form and content into one. Though Fish’s analyses are too long and complex to excerpt or even summarize, here is a pared down version of his insightful reading of John Updike’s evocation of what it was like to see Ted Williams hit a home run: “It was in the books while it was still in the sky.” After explaining that “while” serves as the fulcrum of the sentence, uniting the metaphorical “in the books” with the literal “in the sky,” Fish comments:

On the surface, “in the book” and “in the sky” are in distinct registers, one referring to the monumentality the home run will acquire in history, the other describing the ball’s actual physical arc; but the registers are finally, and indeed immediately (this sentence goes fast), the same: the physical act and its transformation into myth occur simultaneously; or rather, that is what Updike makes us feel as we glide through this deceptively simple sentence composed entirely of monosyllables.

Fish goes on in later chapters to tackle sentences that are two or three or even five or six times longer than Updike’s, but he does so without losing his grip or sacrificing clarity. And he generally follows them by imitating the form of the sentence by filling it in with his own (admittedly less important) content. Here are the wonderful sentences he dashes off in imitation of Updike: “It was in my stomach before it was off the shelf”; “She was enrolled in Harvard before she was conceived”; “He had won the match before the first serve.”

The Power to Inspire

The perspicacity of Fish’s analyses and the inventiveness of his imitations never grow stale, but I think that the real success of the book lies in its power to inspire readers to construct their own sentences based on the forms that Fish unpacks. You can turn any three word agent-action-recipient sentence, Fish explains, into a controlled, logical 100-word sentence by modifying each of the three words in such a way that it is always clear to the reader how the modified phrases connect to the agent, action, or recipient. Here’s my own attempt to perform just such a syntactical expansion on “Lincoln abolished slavery”: Though he was raised in a log cabin and was defeated in a number of political races, “honest Abe” Lincoln, the lawyer with a heart of gold whose oratorical skills have since become legendary, used the power of his presidency to abolish-by means of a bloody civil war that tore the nation in half, set brother against brother, and left over half a million men dead-the evil institution of slavery, which had brought so much misery to so many people and had for so long given the lie to America’s exalted claim that “all men are created equal.”

And here is my attempt to imitate what Fish calls the subordinating style, a form that “orders its components in relationships of causality (one event or state is caused by another), temporality (events and states are prior or subsequent to one another), and precedence (events and states are arranged in hierarchies of importance)”: Five minutes before the doorbell rang, I sensed that my fate was closing in on me, that the terrible mistake I had made in my senior year of college was finally bearing its bitter fruit, that I could no longer run or hide or pretend it was all a dream, that everything I had tried to do for the last ten years to turn aside the inevitable was as pathetic as it was futile.

Finally, here is a stab at Fish’s additive style, a form in which “successive clauses and sentences are not produced by an overarching logic, but by association”: I like to take long strolls in the evening when the wind is blowing briskly and the stars are rolled out like a canopy, forming themselves, now and then, into constellations whose names I vaguely remember from my schooldays, constellations that tell the stories of Greek heroes whose exploits won them everlasting fame.

I could go on and on, but I’d rather let you read the book and start composing your own sentences.

Suspicious of Slippery Postmoderns

Thus far, I have considered Fish’s book from the point of view of an English professor. I would like to conclude by shifting my perspective from that of a teacher of English who is always looking for practical ways to inspire his students to be good readers and writers, to that of an evangelical Christian who is vaguely suspicious of slippery postmoderns like Stanley Fish who teach, at best, that the reader’s response to a work is more important than the intent of the author and, at worst, that all truth is relative, shifting wildly in meaning from one interpretative community to the next.

At least that is my first reaction-but is it fair? The fact is that although Fish’s seminal study of Paradise Lost bears a title (Surprised by Sin) that directly parodies C. S. Lewis (author not only of A Preface to Paradise Lost but of a spiritual autobiography titled Surprised by Joy), Fish treats Milton’s Christian beliefs and those of his fellow 17th-century believers (John Bunyan, John Donne, George Herbert, etc.) with respect and understanding. Fish does not believe himself, but he-in sharp contrast to such theological liberals as Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and John Spong-knows what the creeds of the church mean both theologically and historically and does not try to press his own post-Enlightenment reading upon them or the Christians who have believed them for the last two millennia. Perry Miller’s historical treatises continue to distort our understanding of our Puritan Fathers; Fish has helped us to wrestle fairly with Milton, Bunyan, and their fellow English Puritans.

Furthermore, Fish, like Harold Bloom-another one of those slippery postmoderns with truth issues-is a bold defender of the full classical Christian curriculum who refuses to bend the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth on the rack of feminism, historicism, and multiculturalism. No, neither Fish nor Bloom accepts the existence of Absolute Truth, whether theological or philosophical, but they do acknowledge that many of the greatest poets of our tradition believed in it and that it behooves us today to take them seriously. Another way to put this is that while many, if not most, of the secular humanists in today’s academy are really secular anti-humanists, Fish and Bloom are true secular humanists who hunger, like Unamuno or Ortega or Santayana or Orwell or E. M. Foster, after the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, even if they are skeptical as to the existence of such Platonic/Augustinian First Principles.

A Sense of Awe

Indeed, had I not known who the author of How to Write a Sentence was, I might have guessed that he was a believer-not because he speaks of Christ or the church or salvation, but because of the passionate way that he feasts on words and his almost childlike willingness to be transformed by sentences. One encounters in Fish a tone and a feeling almost wholly absent from the works of the academy (including, alas, most of our finest seminaries!): a sense of awe, of wonder, of trembling in the presence of the numinous. There is nothing of the flippant professor, eager to deflate and deconstruct; there is instead the humility of the disciple, poised and ready to learn at the feet of the master.

No, How to Write a Sentence poses no danger to Christian faith and doctrine. But it does present a more subtle temptation, especially to academics like myself. Fish’s book does not attack religion; rather, in its own soothing way, it offers a substitute for it. Fish is no new atheist; his approach to literature hearkens back to that more aesthetic ethos of Oscar Wilde and Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf that seeks to turn art and beauty into a religion that can fulfill all of our deepest longings for meaning and purpose.

In the final chapter of his book, Fish considers the sentence from Pilgrim’s Progress in which Christian puts his fingers in his ears and runs away from his city and family, crying out “Life! life! eternal life.” Fish’s analysis of Bunyan’s sentence is, as we would expect, keen and insightful, but he chooses to end his analysis, and the chapter, with these words:

The sentence names the reward [“eternal life”], but it cannot bestow it; it can, however, make us feel both its inestimable price and the price we, as mortal sentence makers, time-bound creatures, are asked to pay. And given a choice between eternity and some of the sentences we have lingered over together, who knows?

The yearning here for a religion of art, for a kind of eternity that is more linguistic than spiritual and that promises communion with a logical structure of words rather than the One who is the Word, is unmistakable. Indeed, it is echoed powerfully in the closing lines of his epilogue:

The reward for effacing ourselves before the altar of sentences will be that “incidentally” (what a great word!)-without looking for it-we will possess a better self than the self we would have possessed had we not put ourselves in service. Sentences can save us. Who could ask for anything more?

In a modern culture that has given up both on ontology—on the existence of eternal things, particularly he whose name is I AM THAT I AM-and epistemology—on our ability to perceive and know those eternal things—all that is left to us is linguistics. In the absence of the Word-made-Flesh, all we can cling to is the word-made-logical-structure—at least until those lovely, fragile, metaphysically detached artifacts (to paraphrase the title of one of Fish’s better-known works) consume themselves and disappear.

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