Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How to Write A Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

Source of Book: I own this

I am a grammar snob. I freely own it. I might even be an insufferable grammar snob.

My library contains a number of reference books. Not one but two unabridged dictionaries, not one but three quotation reference books. And, of course, the venerable Strunk and White. (The Elements of Style, for those outside the circle.)

 Just some of my books on writing and style. 
Note how worn my High School reference book is these days.

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One is the latest addition to my collection. It isn’t a reference book, and it isn’t meant to answer specific questions of grammar, usage, or style. Rather, it is meant to go beyond the rote answers of Strunk and White to the actual construction of a good sentence. I reference The Elements of Style regularly, and Fish acknowledges its reputation and usefulness, to a point.

“No doubt this praise is deserved if the person using the book already knows how to write; already knows, that is, what a sentence is.”

As Fish elaborates, knowledge of the parts of speech and other grammatical building blocks is insufficient. A person must instinctively know how to build the sentence structure, or the rest is incomprehensible. The key, according to Fish, is to understand how the sentence brings the words into relationships with each other.

“A little while back I observed that many people are put off writing because they fear committing one or more of the innumerable errors that seem to lie in wait for them every step of composition. But if one understands that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships and that the number of relationships involved is finite, one understands too that there is only one error to worry about, the error of being illogical…”

In my experience writing, and in editing, this is true. While many errors can be said to violate rules – and they do – they also violate some logical relationship. In the very worst sentences, the writer has lost all sense of how each part of the sentence relates to the others. It becomes incomprehensible.

This is why Strunk and White can mislead. Following the stylistic suggestions accomplishes nothing if the writer applies them without an eye toward the relationships within the sentence.

“The first thing to ask when writing a sentence is ‘What am I trying to do?’”

Fish then proceeds to work through some ideas for “practice” sentence structures. These examples are useful, in my opinion, to gain a knowledge of the skeleton of certain effective sentences.

Generally, I recommend that anyone who wishes to write must read. In particular, one must read well written writing. Alas! I know several self-proclaimed “writers” who read little if anything beyond formulaic page-turners: their writing betrays that fact.

Fish makes a good point, though, that it is helpful to understand the underlying structure of effective writing, and to practice the use of that structure.

In addition to the specific sentence forms, Fish explores the difference between the subordinating style and the additive style. (The subordinating style relates the elements within the sentence in terms of hierarchy, relationship, and time. The additive style tends to run from one idea to another within the sentence, without attempting to relate them.) Fish makes the interesting point that the difference is, in a certain way, theological. The subordinating style assumes a certain ability to control the world (at least within the writing itself), whereas the additive style assumes that the world is bigger and stronger than the author’s attempt to organize it.

“In a world created and presided over by an omnipresent God who fills all the available spaces, the distinctions between things, persons, and events are illusory, a function of a partial, divided, and dividing consciousness.”

It certainly is an interesting concept, and Fish quotes amazing examples of each style from a wide range of authors.

The book also spends a few chapters discussing first and last sentences. I was reminded of the genius of Milton, Donne, James, and Conrad; and introduced to delicious sentences by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anthony Powell which will bear quoting in other contexts in the future.

A deliciously enjoyable book, and an excellent addition to my collection. As Fish summarizes it, “[I]f you know how sentences are put together in the abstract – as formal devices for delivering a nonformal payoff – you will be that much better able to engage with them, to take their measure in full, to receive what they have to give.”