How To Write A Sentence

Forget grammar. Writing is about logic.

Stanley Fish makes this argument in his new book How To Write A Sentence: And How To Read One (Harper: 2011), and it defines for me something that has been morphing in my writing philosophy over the last couple of years. At some point I began shifting time away from grammatical studies and investing more time in the study of logic. I was pleased to read an author who articulated this intuitive shift. Fish writes,

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 at 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, and only one rule to follow: make sure that every component of your sentences is related to the other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous (unless ambiguity is what you are aiming at). (p. 20)

Brilliant.

In other words, don’t let the fear of breaking grammatical rules stop you from writing. Seek first to make logical connections in your writing, make those connections clear, and gauge your success on how well you make them. This point is liberating to me as a writer, but more than liberating, it inspires my writing in a way that grammar cannot, since, as Fish writes, writing with an eye on logic will force your mind to think of correlations and contradictions in ways that can add new dimensions to your thinking and writing (see pp. 30-33).

Another point that Fish makes well is the importance of determining a sentence’s purpose. He asks: What is the intended effect of the sentences that we write? The question is important because there is a wide range of sentence effects that are reflected in various forms, and each form communicates something different to the reader. Too often writing instruction discusses the how of writing, but not the why.

People write or speak sentences in order to produce an effect, and the success of a sentence is measured by the degree to which the desired effect has been achieved. That is why the prescriptive advice you often get in books like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style—write short sentences, be direct, don’t get lost in a maze of piled-up clauses, avoid the passive voice, place yourself in the background, employ figures of speech sparingly—is useful only in relation to some purposes, and unfortunate in relation to others. The first thing to ask when writing a sentence is “What am I trying to do?” … In short, pick your effect, figure out what you want to do, and then figure out how to do it. (pp. 37, 44)

Fish’s point is brilliantly illustrated a few pages later when he explains how using a short and long sentence create different effects for the reader.

Shorter sentences feel planned because they have the proverbial air of being pre-packaged. The writer is saying, “I didn’t make this up on the fly; I’m just giving form to what everyone knows.” Longer sentences can achieve a similar effect by calling attention to their own construction. The writer is saying, “I’m not just putting down whatever comes into my head; I’m giving you the ordered fruits of my considered deliberations.” (p. 48)

Can you see the difference? Short sentences proverbially restate an idea that should be familiar to the reader. On the other hand, longer sentences are better suited for communicating the inner life and the extended deliberations in the author’s mind—thoughts that are anything but proverbial and assumed, but are unique, revealing the secret thought life of the author. Paragraph-length descriptions of the effects of certain sentence styles, like the one I quote above and the others spread throughout the book, illustrate how different sentence forms accomplish different tasks, and reinforce his motto: “You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free” (p. 33). The form is part of the message.

The bulk of the book is comprised of five chapters on subordinate sentences, additive sentences, satirical sentences, first sentences, and last sentences.

  • The subordinating style: “which ranks, orders, and sequences things, events, and persons in a way that strongly suggests a world where control is the imperative and everything is in its proper place.”
  • The additive style: “which gives the impression of speech and writing just haphazardly tumbling out of the mouth or the thoughts of a writer who is not worrying about getting every particular just right.”
  • The satirical style: “employed as a weapon by writers who want to harpoon persons, parties, or society as a whole.”
  • First sentences: are “promissory notes. Whether they foreshadow plot, sketch in character, establish mood, or jump-start arguments, the road ahead of them stretches invitingly and all things are, at least for the moment, possible.”
  • Last sentences: “are more constrained in their possibilities. They can sum up, refuse to sum up, change the subject, leave you satisfied, leave you wanting more, put everything into perspective, or explode perspectives. They do have one advantage: they become the heirs of the interest that is generated by everything that precedes them; they don’t have to start the engine; all they have to do is shut it down.”

Conclusion

How To Write A Sentence is simple enough that you can learn the very basics of how to construct a sentence to achieve an intended effect. But Fish is also deeply perceptive of what makes a great sentence, and readers will delight in his careful exegesis of many great sentences in literary history. In this short book (162 pages) Fish serves two audiences quite well. It will inspire young writers to write clear, purposeful, sentences; and it will delight advanced writers as it breaks down great sentences. How To Write A Sentence will be added to the shelf with my favorite books on writing and frequently revisited for fresh inspiration.

3 thoughts on “How To Write A Sentence

  1. Many thanks for the article, which I stumbled across in someone else’s blogroll. There’s plenty to ponder, even in your brief summary!

    [pedant]I’m a bit puzzled by the “[by]” added into the quotation from p. 20. Fish’s sentence (unsurprisingly) is just right without it: “Many people are put off writing because…”. What is the “[by]” supposed to achieve, I wonder?[/pedant]

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