Thursday, 17 November 2011

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish is an academic, and author, who really loves sentences. Not words on their own, though they can sound beautiful, but words ordered precisely so they create a meaningful sentence. He loves them so much he has written enough sentences about sentences to write a book, which I will now write a few sentences about in my most meta review yet.

How To Write A Sentence is both a tribute to skilful writing and a guide to what it is that writers are doing. The chapters are each about a different style of sentence, and how different authors have used them. He discusses how sentences can tell you what they are about by building themselves in a logical order, or by withholding crucial information make you wait until the end. He writes about first sentences, last sentences, and sentences from anywhere in the middle. He does this by using writing from many familiar writers: Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Martin Luther King for a few examples. His analysis of sentences is definitely interesting, although I would be wary of calling this a definitive approach.

What Fish does very well in this book is his explanation of structure over content. He uses some well known examples of famous sentences that are meaningless, yet structured as though they could make sense. One of these is Noam Chomsky’s famous line ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously’. As Fish points out these words reordered would sound just like a list of words, but in this particular order we perceive there could be a sentence, and by replacing the words with ones grammatically the same, we can write a real sentence e.g. bright green parrots squawk furiously. Again though, reordered this would be a random group of words; without form content cannot emerge.

The book is full of sentences from other authors, some long, some short, but all beautiful in their own way, from John Updike’s description of a famous home run in baseball history ‘it was in the books while it was still in the sky’, to Agatha Christie’s wonderful, economic opening line ‘In the afternoons it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper’. The gems peppered throughout this book make it an enjoyable read. However, as much as Fish focuses on structure over meaning, both of the aforementioned sentences are beautiful largely in the ideas and information they impart. Sentence craft may be the backbone of writing, but one needs the flesh as well. Nevertheless, Fish’s approach to both writing and reading is interesting, while it may not convert non-readers to the joy of sentences, it may make the rest of us appreciate them just that wee bit more.

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