How to Write a Sentence: a book review

Monday, February 23, 2015 0 No tags


My brother and sister-in-law gave me this book for Christmas called, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, by Stanley Fish. Have you heard of it? For a book on writing–oh but it’s much more than that–I sure read it like a thriller page turner.

How is this different from other books about writing? For starters, this book is not about writing in general, but only about writing sentences. Just as the title suggests. Consider the provocative title of the second chapter: Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White.

I know. It’s blasphemous.

I, for one, always have my copy of The Elements of Style nearby, how is he is so bold to make such a claim?! Fish says this:

“In short, Strunk and White’s advice assumes a level of knowledge and understanding only some of their readers will have attained; the vocabulary they confidently offer is itself in need of an analysis and explanation they do not provide.”

According to Fish, the style guide’s answer to the question, “what is a sentence?” does not go deep enough. Okay, fine. So, instead of talking about the technical elements of a sentence, Fish spends the rest of the book delving into his love of good sentences, and deconstructing them in a new way. And it didn’t take me long to get sucked into the game.

He spends entire chapters on the types of sentences we can create, using them as structures on which to create new sentences with our own words. His dissection style is nothing like a grammar book. His way is much more inspiring, and even practical. While Fish isn’t changing any rules, he is simply going past them, and proving along the way that that is where all the fun is. Whether you love or hate grammar, if you love the English language, you will like this book.

The point is, if you love writing, you must first love sentences.

And if you can’t write a well-formed sentence, or even appreciate one, then you can’t write well. And there is more to writing a sentence then subject and verb placement. More to writing a good sentence, anyway.

Fish is like a chef whose peers want to teach you to cook by spending one day on the onion, another on the potato, and another on knife cutting techniques. All that is well and good, but Fish takes you aside, hands you a chip piled with guacamole and says, “let’s talk about what exactly makes this combination so surprising and delightful. And then we will see what other surprising chip dips we can make using a vegetable, acidic element, root vegetable, and an alkaline fruit”.

In short, where Strunk and White provide the rules, Fish offers form. And he shows through many examples that those forms are fool-proof, if you can only dissect the forms properly. But once you have done the dissecting, the possibilities are endless. Literally!

Creating sentences is way more fun than you ever believed!

Since reading the book, I have been on the lookout for sentences that I love. It’s hard. There are plenty of quotes and inspiring thoughts to love, but finding great sentence structures when the meaning of the words is stripped away is not an easy task.

His chapters on first and last sentences will have you reaching for every book on your book shelf, eating up the first and last sentences of everything you can get your hands on. What a whole new world he has opened up!

Overall, this book is a delight to read and I would even go so far as to call it a must-read for writers and readers who want to be better writers and readers, whether or not you agree with him 100%.

What do you think? Are you intrigued? Will you read it? What are some of your favorite books for writers and readers alike? Comment below! And click on the book below for info, and more reviews.


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