How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

By Stanley Fish

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Readers` Reviews

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
The essayist Joseph Epstein in his very negative review of this book pointed out that sentences are not ordinarily written as things in themselves but as parts of paragraphs, and whole compositions. Analyzing sentences in and by themselves may be alright for 'aphorisms' but does not make sense for most prose.
Another major error of this work is its contention that 'content' does not matter. Content shapes and content helps define the character and quality of a sentence.
The approach that style comes as some kind of abstract pattern which can be formalized like an algorithm seems to me wholly mistaken. Writing is a creative art which means too that the style is the man, the individual, and never simply the fitting into a formula.
When we read a sentence of Kafka we know it is like that of no one else. The same can be said of other great masters of the sentence.
Fish is to be commended for caring about sentences, bringing many good examples of wonderful sentences. The idea of having a chapter on opening sentences and one on closing sentences is a good one.
But it is very doubtful anyone will really learn to write from reading this kind of book. The way to learn to write is by writing, and too by reading writers who have something to say.
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
freddy mackay
As others have written, this book start out well but gets more boring and rambling by the page.
I'm a visual artist, but I like reading about writing by writers since that's their expertise. Visual artists sometimes can write a good essay on how they make their art, but it's usually a less interesting read than by a good fiction writer. (That leaves out Fish) My suggestion, if you want to know about how different fiction writers do their art, is read The Art of Fiction sections (there are usually two per issue) in Paris Review, a periodical that comes out 4 times a year.
As a footnote, my conclusion, after reading many essays and bios of artists, is that it's completely non-linear, i.e. unique with only particular characteristics. It's also strange what drives different artists, such as infiltrating high society (Proust, Capote, & Warhol) and commenting on them, or political art (Krueger, Chicago) or writing about the dysfunction of family or society (boring mostly imo).
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
What I like about this book, what I really like, is how Stanley Fish cares about good writing. Fish's love for sentences shines from the first page to the last; it could not be more pronounced. HOW TO WRITE A SENTENCE starts well enough, as Fish relays how a great piece of writing finds itself at the mercy of great sentences. In the first four chapters, the reader learns a few basic (somewhat technical) parts of a sentence, and how these little parts -- often taken for granted by inexperienced readers -- become building blocks to masterpieces (Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald). The next three chapters examine three different "styles" of sentences. The styles are Subordinating, Additive, Satiric, names chosen arbitrarily by Fish himself. These chapters give examples of each style from famous writers. The book rounds out with a chapter on "first sentences" (from famous books) and another on "last sentences."

In my opinion, the book contains one serious flaw.

Fish believes that good writing starts with sentence templates and ends when the writer fills in the templates with content. Fish backs his thesis with example after example of "great" sentences that adhere to his templates. Fish claims that there are a finite number of templates that can be filled with an infinite combination of words, the content. As an exercise, Fish asks the reader to "copy" the structure of simple sentences (John ate meat -- subject, verb, object) and then to fill in the template with more complex words and phrases, until the student's sentence becomes 100 words or more. In this way, Fish claims, the student may learn the craft of writing.

Such advice is boloney.

Content drives writing. Sentence style may be a necessary condition of good writing, but content drives the style, not the other way around. Not only does content drive the style of a sentence, it drives the structure of paragraphs and entire bodies of work. If every writer found a style first and then stuffed their content into (sentence, paragraph, large-scale) templates, then good writers would still be writing like they just stepped out of 9th grade English class. Thankfully, and for the sake of his book, Fish's own writing does not conform to his conventions. Fish seems to have rationalized how good writing works, but he doesn't seem to realize that he uses more intuition than he realizes.

What strikes me funny is that Fish gives example after example of what he claims to be great sentences. These sentences all appear in famous work written by famous writers. Time after time, in example after example, Fish falls victim to the same Post Hoc fallacy with which so many "writing critics" blind their ability to analyze good writing (and in turn limit their ability to improve as writers themselves). The blinded critic, Fish being no exception, finds a piece of writing already considered good by general consensus and then proceeds to explain "why" it is good.

I'll give an example from Chapter 7, "The Satiric Style." Fish uses an example from J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words.

Austin: "And we must at all costs avoid over-simplification [ironically enough], which one might be tempted to call the occupational disease of philosophers if it were not their occupation."

Fish spends an entire page analyzing this sentence and creating a sentence of his own, based on Austin's template, until finally he comes to this conclusion about his imitation: "Is there a formula here? Yes...Not as snappy and whiplike as Austin's sentence, but in the ballpark."

This book does not preach Picasso, folks. This book advocates imitation. Ladies and gentlemen, take your body and imagine it sliding gracefully and comfortably into a tailor-made Ralph Lauren suit. Next, imagine yourself stuffed into a $99 Wal-Mart special. What would you rather wear? How would you rather write?
Of Human Bondage :: The Bondage Breaker :: Of Human Bondage (Bantam Classics) :: The Bondage of the Will :: A Place for Us: A Novel
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
daniel cardoso balieiro
Professor, I know Stunk and White. They are friends of mine. Professor, you are no Stunk and White. It is worth wading through Stanley Fish's book, How to Write a Sentence, only if you want to be drenched in sloppy thinking, indulgent and poorly crafted writing, and spineless style. I challenge any reader to find one great sentence written by Fish. I challenge any reader to defend his arguments on style, content, or perception. Booklist says that "language lovers will flock to this homage to great writing." It is not. New Yorker says that people will "tend to find him fascinating." The fascination might, maybe, possibly occurs because the wretched writing is being put forth by what the inner jacket calls a "world-class" professor. BookPage says that "Stanly Fish just might be American's most famous professor." And then again, he just might not be.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
marc rickaby
This is a short book that gives you a chance to listen while an expert talks about a subject he loves--the sentence. I enjoyed it all. Most of it isn't really instructional in an immediate way. It's more like an English class where you think about sentences and why you like what you like. The chapters on first and last sentences are especially interesting, with many good examples to compare. A very pleasurable afternoon's read.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
While this book was a very interesting read, I did not feel that it approved my ability to write a sentence, which is likely obvious from this review. I did, however, find the detailed breakdown of sentences from popular literally works improved my ability to read literature and provided me with a well needed fresh perspective of literature. It has been awhile since I have been in school and I feel that in this time I had lost my eye for detail and the artistic mastery that good writers posses. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading as its persistent influence will increase the value of every future reading adventure.
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
anthony renwick
I checked this book out of the library to see if it had anything to offer my homeschooled sons, one of whom intends to publish a simplified summary of quantum physics for middle school readers. I.e., he needs to perfect his writing skills because he has an idea he desires to communicate to a larger audience and, thus, he has a real reason for continuing to refine writing skills.

I am sure we will find a few things worth reading in this book, but I disagree with Stanley Fish's fundamental premise: that the foundation for writing is an obsession with syntax and sentence structure. As the store reviewer Howard Goldowsky states, "Content drives writing." Yes, yes, yes. The world is drowning in "pretty words which don't actually say anything," and it is time we all said "enough." (Please read Mr. Goldowsky's review: it appears to be on point.)

I was turned off at the very beginning by Fish's homage to the writing approach of Annie Dillard: Dillard is an arrogant nihilist who makes clear in her writings and website that she views humanity with great disdain and wants nothing to do with the rest of us except to take our money when we purchase her books. Her nihilistic attitudes affect her views on the writing process and cause her to be completely wrong about what comes first in writing, craft or purpose. Let me explain.

First, it floors me how many people revere Dillard as a Christian writer based on nothing more than her (sometime) assertion that she is a Christian. Spiritual, yes: even the most pagan hedonist usually considers him/herself to have a spiritual life! And I can understand why Pilgrim at Tinker Creek won a Pulitzer Prize: weirdness is often mistaken for genius, and the book is definitely weird. In her book The Holy Firm, Dillard's contempt for the idea of God reveals itself clearly: "this one God is a brute and a traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matter unhinged." She states essentially that she is 'above' having to subscribe to a certain belief system and that, like Buddhists, she believes that, in reality, Creation is just an illusion.

Thus, since nothing that happens in an illusory world is real or meaningful, it should not surprise us when Dillard states: "God hates ideas." GOD HATES IDEAS? Omg, no, no, no. But if Dillard sincerely believes that, then OF COURSE she believes that what drives writing is sentence structure, not content or ideas!

Fish quotes Dillard as saying, "When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner's pick, a woodcarver's gouge, a surgeon's probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow." Fish continues, approvingly: "And when you come to the end of the path, you have a sentence." So, good writers write with no plan or purpose, and if their sentences are interesting enough, then what they have written deserves to be published? No, no, no, no! (Though it is obvious from Dillard's books that, yes, this is in fact the way she writes -- which is why I see nothing in her books EXCEPT the occasional well-crafted sentence.)

In sum, to Dillard and Stanley Fish, anyone who loves a good sentence should become a writer regardless of whether he/she has anything to say. I'm sorry, I disagree with this view, vehemently -- just as I disagree that young people should be allowed to get a Bachelor's degree (sometimes with the aid of taxpayer money) in Creative Writing. Let these would-be writers go forth into adult life and begin shouldering some of the real responsibilities of society -- and then if they truly have something to say, be it fiction or non-fiction, they can study creative writing on the side as many of us working, responsible adults do all the time with our personal passions (i.e., study on the side). Good ideas get better as they ripen and mature over time, and writing should be viewed primarily as a tool necessary to the performance of other occupations (although, of course, there are exceptions to every rule).

Don't get me wrong: I DO think young people have voices which deserve to be heard; witness my son who wants to make quantum physics more accessible to younger students. But those we need to hear are not the ones who end up pursuing a four year degree in Creative Writing (my son, for example, plans to pursue a degree in some form of applied science). I'm not a hater, I'm just saying: there are some college degrees which do not contribute to the functioning of society (and, thus, are essentially worthless) and it is my personal opinion that "creative writing" generally fits within that category.
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Language lovers will revel in a short book by Stanley Fish titled, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Each of the ten short chapters by this English professor explores the form, style and content of a sentence. Any reader with a desire to be taught some fundamentals about writing and reading by a skilled teacher will enjoy the time spent reading this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
mike lomonico
This book is an enjoyable read for good readers and writers, and could be quite helpful for those who struggle with syntax. All along the way, Fish raises some rather deep and interesting ideas regarding the relationship of language to reality. Highly recommended!
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
laura fingal surma
Mr. Fish writes: "It is often said that language is to report or reflect or mirror reality, but the power of language is greater and more dangerous than that; it shapes reality not of course in a literal sense--the world is one thing, words another--but in the sense that the order imposed on a piece of the world by a sentence is the only one among innumerable possible orders."

"To be sure, your eventual goal is to be able to write forcefully about issues that matter to you, but if you begin with those issues uppermost in your mind, you will never get to the point where you can do verbal justice to them."

These lamentable sentences are directly from Mr. Fish's book. This book is rife with unintelligible prose--dozens on every page. Poorly written sentences -- full of extraneous adjectives, adverbs and clauses, usually starting with a weak prepositional phrase-- make reading this book like wading through a swamp in flip flops. The author's joy of sentences far outweighs his ability to write one.

A fan does not need to play cello like Yo Yo Ma to enjoy his music, so why should I care if Mr. Fish can himself write a strong sentence? Because his gross lack of self-editing, which reads like a maniacal professor on an absinthe-induced rant, becomes droll by page 20, and downright unreadable by page 65.

"Language is to reflect reality, but powerful language shapes reality by imposing order on the world."

"Your goal is to write forcefully about important issues, and do them verbal justice."

Here are the two above sentences by Mr. Fish, properly edited and more pleasant to read (admittedly, the second sentence does not convey the full meaning of Mr. Fish's sentence; his makes no sense and is thus poor in both form and content and cannot be edited successfully).

I adore a well-turned sentence. But this book strays so far from practicing what it preaches, it's a tiresome and pointless slog for the reader. The examples of wonderful sentences written by others are few and far between. Most of the text is the author himself, enjoying the clicking of his own keyboard. This book is a stream-of-consciousness pontification about quality sentences that the author himself cannot write.

Fine companions to this book would be "The Fine Art of Editing Sentences" or "The Power of Simple Declarative Sentences".

There are many better books that teach both the appreciation and the construction of simple and eloquent sentences. One example is Paula LaRocque's The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide To Writing Well. Ms. LaRocque teaches by example: she shows passable sentences revised to be excellent sentences.
The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well

A student of fine writing, as well as an appreciative reader, would do best to read the masters of simple, powerful writing: E. Hemingway, J. Steinbeck, C. McCarthy, F.S. Fitzgerald, etc.

Learn through example, rather than by being lectured from Professor Convoluted.

Two giant thumbs down. One look at the titles of the other books by Stanley Fish (please take a moment to review his bibliography) will prove that Mr. Fish is not one for concise and powerful writing -- even his book titles are mind-numbing.

A true disappointment as I wanted to like this book.

!!Have a wonderful day!!
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
kelly dollarhide
This is a concise, thoughtful, and entertaining book on style, written by someone who has spent much of his career thinking about our relationship to written language. My problem is that the writers from whom he chooses his examples are overwhelmingly male and, with exception of Dr. King, entirely white. Let that sink in: in 2011, Prof. Fish and the editors at HarperCollins thought that a general American readership would be served by a guide to writing in which white male voices excluded almost everyone else's. Although there are good things to take from this book, I can't use it in the classroom unless I supplement it with sentences by any of the great writers of color whose work is abundantly available.
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
rosa ponte
I found this book tedious, pompous, rambling and inconsequential. And lacking in style.

I agree entirely with a previous reviewer: concision in writing is a virtue. As George Bernard Shaw once wrote: "I apologise for sending you a long letter. I did not have time to write a short one." Concision requires more effort, but the result for the reader is much better.

Not helpful towards good writing.
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
This lean book was written by a full professor. Reading it made me wonder whether it would have been a fuller book had it been written by a lean assistant professor (with apologies to Nabokov).

First: Some reasons why you might want to go to a bookstore and browse, flip through it, scan a few pages. (Don't buy it, don't steal it - it's neither worth the money nor the risk.)

The example sentences in chapters 5 and 6 are well chosen from books by exciting, marvelous, electric writers. Most of these "good sentences" are neatly paraphrased. Paraphrase is followed by an analysis pointing out why these sentences work so well. "Why" means mainly "form," and since you can imitate "form," you too may (try to) write good sentences.

Secondly, however: Reading several of the other chapters, and looking at the sentences more closely, made me wish for a hungrier, more ambitious and more modest assistant professor, who wouldn't get away with the following sloppy sentences, and worse (bunkum, claptrap, piffle):

Page 3: "Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines. I appreciate fine sentences." Used as a blurb (burp?), this set of sentences makes me puke. First of all: It's "appreciate" instead of "like" - how pretentious! And the comparisons with "fine art" and "fine wine" - are they here to suggest, ever so subtly, that our full Professor is a man of taste and refinement? Or of affectation, perhaps? Or simply full of himself?

Page 16: "Well, my bottom line can be summarized in two statements." A bottom line, which is not the prettiest phrase in a book on writing well, is, in a more appropriate corporate setting, already the sum or summary. The summary of a summary is just flummery.

Page 45: Introducing the subordinating and additive styles, the full Professor writes "...they are powerfully different and different in a way that has a content of its own." Powerfully different? And the way has a content of its own? Puleeze.

Page 50: "Not James by any means, but a passable cheap imitation." Page 55: "The sentence is bathetic, even pathetic, but its form is the same as the form of King's sentence ..." Page 86: "But we can at least imitate Ford's form even if we cannot approach his achievement." Page 96: "Why are these imitations so lame, aside from the fact that I, not Swift, wrote them?" - In these sentences the full Professor excuses his bad imitations of (the form of) good sentences. It's like appreciating a glass of fine wine, then gulping down a two-buck-chuck, declaring: Hey, same form! Bathetic is derived, originally, from a Greek noun meaning depth. But as dictionaries tell us, in today's high-brow language it means a seemingly ridiculous artwork or poor performance.

Page 122-123: Kate Croy and Merton Densher "have made for themselves a quite different future than the one they imagined ..." Professor: Shouldn't it be "from" instead of "than"? See Strunk, White, "The Elements of Style," 4th ed., p. 44.

Page 133: "As we near the end of our time together, let's look back and see where we've been and how far we've come." Near the end of our time sounds ominous, prophetic, biblical, bloated. Is "we" the pluralis maiestatis? Must be; because the next sentence starts: "I began with ..." and the I doesn't stop until the end of the chapter, where by a sleight of hand a tiny us reappears, followed by a we.

The full Professor uses powerful adjectives for emphasis, for instance the adjective "powerful:" Page 35: "... so you can't produce powerful content in the shape of sentences that take your readers by storm without (...) formal devices (...)" There are several gems here: content that's powerful. Content in the shape of sentences. Sentences that take you by storm. But only with formal devices. Looks rather purple to me. On page 43, conventions, too, "can be powerful." On page 97, forms "are there for a reason they do not themselves point to; they are there for the elaboration, illumination, and powerful expression of content." Help me understand: There's a reason for forms. But the forms don't point to the reason. Instead, "they are there for the elaboration, illumination, and powerful expression of content." So what's their reason? Who's on first? Shouldn't it be, taken together with the powerful-content-sentence on page 35: "There's a reason for forms or formal devices. They are essential in the production of powerful content (which, when cast in the shape of sentences, takes readers by storm), because they - the forms - elaborate, illuminate, and powerfully express content in the shape of sentences that take your readers by storm, but only with the help of formal devices, which have a reason, to which they don't point, however.

Why didn't I get it the first time?
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
The book seemed promising and it started out that way, but the examples he used to explain various techniques didn't work for me. They fell flat and I was left underwhelmed and no more enlightened or even entertained.

There is a terrible flaw in the book. Several times he uses the word infinite to describe the possible ways in which words can be ordered to create a sentence. Guess what? It's not infinite. There's a finite number of words in all the languages of the world. Even if you included all of them and created a super long sentence, the number of possible sentences would NOT be infinite. It's finite. A big number? Yes, but finite. This professor would do well to walk down a hall and speak to a mathematician or physicist on the topic of infinity. (See pages 16 and 31).
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
3a i af eh
This book showed up on the "new books" counter at my public library and I couldn't resist the catchy title. I finally had some downtime so I spent about three hours struggling through it.

I cannot believe that someone with this author's background could come out with something so mediocre. I am not by any means a great reader or writer at all but I have done my share of report writing and have usually ended up writing all the reports wherever I have worked. I also had a small business writing business plans. I made it my business to know how to write well.

What is foremost in decent writing is to make sentences short. Get one's point across succinctly and in as few words as possible. Don't use big words when little ones will do. Always have a good dictionary, a thesaurus and an effective grammar guide within easy reach. Here, the author refutes all of this. He even goes so far as to put down Strunk and White!

Also, couldn't they afford a proof reader. Geez!

His writing is convoluted to say the least. The examples he uses, of which there are far too few, are of little help if not confusing. He seems to have his own rules for writing, which make no rational sense.

Each succeeding chapter is worse that the one before it. I gave up after about one-third of the way through it. I guess they can publish anything these days.

I feel like I need to reread Strunk and White just to undue whatever damage has been done to my brain cells.
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
marjie s
The worst book ever to be published. This book literally gives me anxiety while reading it. The sentences are 4 lines long. He repeats his ideas 500 times. There are whole pages spent on analyzing a 5 WORD SENTENCE!! Obviously he had more time on his hands than any of us will!! Not even 1 star, 0 star.
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
tammy lim
How To Write A Sentence by Stanley Fish is not a very good book - kind of esoteric, literary-artistic, and boring at the same time. It seems like a vanity project for somebody who truly admires good writing, but I didn't learn anything from it. Oh, and one more thing, the author puts down Strunk and White's "Elements of Style", but that's like a toddler challenging an Olympic sprinter to a race.
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