How to write a sentence, by Stanley Fish

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
How to write a sentence, by Stanley Fish

How To Write a (Good) Sentence: Adam Haslett on Stanley Fish.

Though never explicitly political, The Elements of Style is unmistakably a product of its time. Its calls for "vigour" and "toughness" in language, its analogy of sentences to smoothly functioning machines, its distrust of vernacular and foreign language phrases all conform to that disciplined, buttoned-down and most self-assured stretch of the American century from the armistice through the height of the Cold War. A time before race riots, feminism, and the collapse of the gold standard. It is a book full of sound advice addressed to a class of all-male Ivy-Leaguers wearing neckties and with neatly parted hair. This, of course, is part of its continuing appeal. It is spoken in the voice of unquestioned authority in a world where that no longer exists. As Lorin Stein, the new editor of the celebrated literary magazine the Paris Review, recently put it to me: "It's like a national superego." And when it comes to an activity as variable, difficult, and ultimately ungovernable as writing sentences, the allure of rules that dictate brevity and concreteness is enduring....


Fish's aim is to offer a guide to sentence craft and appreciation that is both deeper and more democratic. What, at base, is a sentence? he asks, and then goes on to argue that the standard answer based in parts of speech and rules of grammar teaches students "nothing about how to write." Instead, we should be examining the "logical relationships" within different sentence forms to see how they organize the world. His argument is that you can learn to write and later become a good writer by understanding and imitating these forms from many different styles. Thus, if you're drawn to Jonathan Swift's biting satire in the sentence, "Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse," then, Fish advises, "Put together two mildly affirmative assertions, the second of which reacts to the first in a way that is absurdly inadequate." He offers, "Yesterday I saw a man electrocuted and it really was surprising how quiet he became." Lame, and hardly Swift, as Fish is the first to admit, but identifying the logical structure does specify how satire functions at the level of the sentence and, if you want to employ the form, that's a good thing to know.

And so it time to retire Strunk and White? Should we no longer omit [s]needless[/s] words?

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

I've never heard of Strunk, White, Haslett, or Fish until now. Does that make me a bad person? Sealed

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Lies, Boom Boom! You've heard of White. It's E.B. White, the same guy who wrote Charlotte's Web.



My guess is that Boomer has some Strunk in his LP collection, too.