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This section features discussions on education, learning and teaching, and language with particular focus on English. The primary subjects to be taken up here are notable advocacies and contrary viewpoints in these disciplines and their allied fields. Our primary aim is to clarify matters and issues of importance to language and learning, provide intelligent and useful instruction, promote rational and critical thinking, and enhance the individual’s overall capacity for discernment.

Book on the sentence-writing craft meted heavy sentences by critics

In January of this year, Stanley Fish, a professor of law at Florida International University and a weekly columnist for The New York Times, came up with a book that’s part paean to the sentence and part how-to-write guide. Entitled How To Write a Sentence and How to Read One (HarperCollins, 176 pages), the book extols the virtues of finely wrought sentences from a word connoisseur’s standpoint. Meticulously discussing sentence-crafting in terms of form, content, and style, Fish illustrates his arguments with selected sentences from masters of English writing from Shakespeare to present-day novelists. 

How to Write a Sentence

“Some people are bird watchers, others are celebrity watchers; still others are flora and fauna watchers,” Fish says in his book. “I belong to the tribe of sentence watchers. Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines. I appreciate fine sentences. I am always on the lookout for sentences that take your breath away, for sentences that make you say, ‘Isn’t that something?’ or ‘What a sentence!’”

The book has drawn mixed reviews.

In “How To Write a (Good) Sentence,” a review of How To Write a Sentence and How to Read One in the January 23, 2011 issue of Slate, Adam Haslett considers Fish’s book an improvement over Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which he says has such a strong bias for plain statement as to have an undesirable “knock-on effect” on both expository and literary prose—a bias that he says leads writers to be cautious and dull. “Fish’s catholic taste in prose offers a far richer introduction to the capacities of English language sentences,” Haslett says, but he adds the book doesn’t go far in its analysis of what good writing is. “But for those…who fell in love with literature not by becoming enthralled to books they couldn’t put down but by discovering individual sentences whose rhythm and rhetoric was so compelling they couldn’t help but repeat them to anyone who would listen, [Fish’s book] is a blessed replacement to that old Strunkian superego forever whispering in your ear—cut, cut, cut.”

On the other hand, in a review of How To Write a Sentence and How to Read One in the January 28, 2011 issue of the National Post, Mike Doherty faults Fish’s preference for considering sentences in isolation from the rest of their texts. “Fish is so preoccupied with individual trees that he hardly lets us glimpse the forest where they’ve been planted,” Doherty observes. “Bereft of a sense of narrative, the book can become somewhat wearying, akin to watching a collection of sports highlights being dissected by commentators who don’t tell you much about the teams in question, or why the plays mattered.”

Almost entirely dismissive of How To Write a Sentence and How to Read One is Joseph Epstein, the essayist, short story writer, and editor who used to be the editor of the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s The American Scholar magazine. In “Heavy Sentences,” a review of Fish’s book in the June 2011 edition of The New Criterion magazine, Epstein says that Fish ignores the crucial fact that sentences owe their form and their language to their place in that larger entity, the paragraph. “One cannot know the form one sentence is to take until having taken into cognizance the sentence, or sentences, that precede it,” Epstein says. “As the principle of poetry is—or once was—uniformity of meter, so the reigning principle of prose is variety, which means avoiding uniformity of syntax, rhythm, repetition of words, sameness of syntax. A sentence, every sentence, is a tile in a briefer or lengthier mosaic known as a paragraph. No sentence, like no man, as the poet said, is an island.”

Epstein adds: “Unless one is considering aphorisms or maxims, the study of the sentence, by itself, has its severe limits. After one has charted simple, complex, and compound sentences, mentioned sentences dominated by subordinate clauses and sentences that are additive, or add one clause after another on their tail end, there isn’t all that much useful to say, except that one sentence is ill- and another well-made, one tone deaf and another sonorous.”

Read an excerpt from Stanley Fish’s How To Write a Sentence and How to Read One now!

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