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Words to the Wise

How to Write a Sentence

How to Write a Sentence is a deadly title for a book, but don't be put off.

This book, by Stanley Fish, is not about grammar or the parts of speech or how to parse a sentence. It's about what we do—what the world's best writers do—when we form a sentence out of a random collection of words. The answer is relationships, and Fish spends 160 pages showing the reader, with examples from the best writing in the English language, how these relationships work.

Fish begins with one of those irresistible anecdotes guaranteed to suck you in (openings are so important!). A student asks a writer, "Do you think I could be a writer?" To the student's surprise, the writer comes back with, "Well, do you like sentences?" What the writer is really saying is that "if he liked sentences he could begin." A similar conversation took place with a painter friend. In answer to the question, "How did you become a painter?" the painter said, "I like the smell of paint."

Fish's point is that you don't begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or a masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other. Then, by studying the best, you learn about relationships.

Fish has three reasons for his style. First, if you learn what goes into making a memorable sentence—coordination, subordination, allusion, compression, parallelism, alliteration—you will also be learning how to appreciate the sentence.

Second, if as you admire the sentence, you become aware of why you are admiring it, you can begin to produce something like it. And third, as you practise analyzing and imitating sentences, you will at the same time be practising reading sentences.

Why is it important to be able to read sentences? (Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer, calls this "close reading.") Because it helps you to know what makes this sentence so effective: It was in the books while it was still in the sky.

This was written by John Updike, about a home run hit in Fenway Park in 1960. Fish spends a full page showing us why it is so good, and another page demonstrating an exercise in matching its style.

How to Write a Sentence is a whole new take on a subject that has been worked to death. The death part comes from all those grammar and style books that, in the end, aren't helpful. They aren't helpful because, as Fish explains, they assume that the user "already knows how to write; already knows, that is, what a sentence is." Take Strunk and White's Elements of Style, a revered classic. If you're not quite sure what a sentence is, or isn't, and you couldn't for the life of you explain how a subject and verb go together or what an independent clause is, Strunk and White's instructions will make no sense.

This book makes sense, and the little bit of literature you'll get to savour will make the effort worth it.

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish is published by HarperCollins, 2011.

Reading Like a Writer: A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them by Francine Prose is published by Harper Perennial, 2006.

If you want to look again at Strunk and White’s classic, The Elements of Style, be sure to get the 4th edition, published by Allyn & Bacon, 2000. For a much better take on style, read Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams, published by The University of Chicago Press, paperback edition 1995.

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