How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

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Now here is a review I’ll have to edit carefully.

Like a well composed sentence of which he would approve, Stanley Fish’s “How to Write a Sentence and How to Read one” has a clear formal structure, and cleaves closely to it. But, also like one of Fish’s preferred sentences, it rambles on in an unchaperoned fashion: for a short book, it is easy to put down. For all its tight formal structure, it is not clear what Fish wants to achieve, if not simply to put the world to rights.

Early on, Fish dismisses Strunk & White’s classic The Elements of Style and of the sort of economical writing that volume encourages. He claims it is only of any use to those who already know not just how to write, but what devilishly complicated things like adjectives and independent clauses are. But hold on: Are the parts of speech really that intimidating?

Certainly no more intimidating than Fish’s own vocabulary: to avoid them, Fish suggests the reader practice identifying the logical relationships that constitute (or are constituted by) sentences by picking four or five items from around the room and joining them with “a verb or a modal auxiliary”! The irony runs on: The back half of the book extols sentences, itself in sentences, that no-one without a passion for a well-placed subjunctive would have a hope of comprehending.

All the same, this is no technical manual. In his first half Fish airily proposes some formal sentence structures types and counsels the reader to practise them. There are just three, and they seem arbitrary: the “subordinating style” where descriptive clauses refine and further describe an initial proposition (often sentences with “which” or “that” in them — “the bed that you make is the one you have to lie in”); the “additive style” where each additional clause augments the content to preceding ones (so, “the fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow followed free”); and the “satyric” style, which doesn’t seem to be a formal sentence structure at all, but Fish’s own prescription for being witty.

I’m not sure why these would be the fundaments of any linguistic structure, other than because Fish says so, nor what to do about sentences, like this one, that attempt to do all three. Nor that there aren’t perfectly well sentences that do none. (Most of James Ellroy’s never get that far, and he is one of the most stylish writers on the planet).

Talk of James Ellroy reminds me: what Fish’s prescription, contra Strunk, White & Ellroy (now there would be a fine book on style!) encourages verbosity. Fish loves long, wordy, flowery writing: he’s a lawyer, after all.[1] He devotes the second half of his book to a canter through his favourite sentences from literature. Most, to my eyes, could have been improved with a full stop or two and hearty use of a red pen, and all seemed selected as much to burnish the author’s own intellectual credentials as anything else.

Fish believes that Strunk & White’s preference for concision is a modern error that robs the language of richness and diversity. Now, granted, I don’t always practice what I preach, but I profoundly disagree: It is easy (as Fish demonstrates, using his subordinate and additive templates) to write infinitely long sentences. All you need is to be bothered enough to do so. This, in Professor Fish’s honour, I call the Fish Principle. But it is harder to write short ones. It is much harder to write good short ones.

Elongating a sentence for the sake of it is a charlatan’s ruse. It appeals to the pretentious and those who charge by the hour, as lawyers do. The real challenge, as far as I can see, is imparting all that richness and complexity as economically as possible.

So, I can’t recommend this book based on its billing. If you do want to learn, simply, how to write and read a sentence, then — well, try Strunk & White.

But if you like the idiosyncratic peregrinations of a bon vivant law and literature professor, fill your boots.

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  1. It turns out Stanley Fish is a law professor, but not a lawyer — he holds no legal qualification at all! This is quite an achievement.