Review: How to Write a Sentence, by Stanley Fish

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read OneHow to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book immediately after being disappointed by It was the Best of Sentences, It was the Worst of Sentences, so I may have been primed to have an overly enthusiastic reaction to a book which offered such a different take on the subject. To me, Fish’s book was more like a philosophical work on how to approach sentences than a “how-to” book and (apologies if Fish is riffing on a philosophy espoused by others, this being my first exposure to it) I think Fish is really on to something.

As in any book on ‘the sentence,’ Fish parses sentences but he eschews the traditional literary terms, the parts of speech etc., and, instead, approaches the sentence as “a structure of logical relationships.” What does this mean? Well, as I understood it, it means that, rather than analysing the sentence for the parts of speech and labelling those parts and checking them against a table of what is and isn’t allowed (the traditional method,) Fish divides the sentence into logical segments and analyses each part, how each part relates to, and changes, the other parts and what meaning, as a whole, the words in the sentence actually communicate. The ‘logical’ segments I spoke of require only that you are fluent in the language the sentence is written in, you don’t need to have studied literature, nor know how to label all the parts of speech, to learn how to analyse a sentence for quality.

In short, where traditional methods focus on labelling and rules, Fish’s method concentrates on the relationships between words and their effect upon each other and the reader (the content communicated.) Fish’s method consistently reminded me of learning a new language; We can learn the rules and exceptions by rote, but we are far more likely to become fluent using an immersion approach – this is what Fish does with sentences.

Fish analyses many different types of sentences for us, by way of showing us how to do it ourselves, and we may not all agree with the sentences he chooses, but this is beside the point, they are simply samples used to show a method. Still, if we want him to tackle a favourite sentence, Fish asks that we email him (thus, bad ratings of the book based upon which sentences he chose are not only missing the point but betraying that they didn’t read to Fish’s request for alternatives.) Fish gives the reader no sense of “there, now you know everything you will ever need to know about sentences” at the end of this book, rather, he sends us on our way having provided us the tools required to spend our lives learning and improving our writing, or reading.

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