Wednesday, September 30, 2015

You too can write better sentences!

How to write a sentence. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? There, I've just written two. In the second, I omitted the subject which should probably be "It"; that is, "It sounds simple . . . ." This "It" standing for "How to write a sentence," the second "it" standing in for "sound simple."

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.  

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