Stanley Fish, distinguished college professor and The New York Times columnist, has long been a fan of language. He appreciates fine sentences and confides that he belongs to the "tribe of sentence watchers." In his humbly titled book How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Fish puts under the microscope some of history’s most potent sentences written by prominent writers like William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Martin Luther King Jr. to uncover what makes for beautiful language.
He explores sentence craft and sentence pleasure to understand the essence of beautiful language and goes further to highlight gems that allow for crafting effective sentences, making these gems accessible to just about anyone. You might worry that a whole book on sentences has to be boring, but Fish’s vibrant style, ample use of examples and well-thought-out chapters quickly dispels this perception.
His chapter titled ‘Why You Won't Find the Answer in Strunk and White' notably presents an intelligent rebuttal of popular mandates found in the classic "Elements of Style," such as an insistence on brevity and sentence minimalism. According to Fish, Strunk and White assume a certain level of knowledge and sophistication where "the vocabulary they confidently offer is itself in need of an analysis and explanation they do not provide." This is only one of the stimulating instances in the book where he argues strongly against Strunk and White’s popular mandates.
Fish would have done well to include modern authors in his examples in order to appeal more to the present crop of writers, but anyone who loves beautiful sentences will still find much to savor in this highly enlightening resource.
Here are 10 quips from "How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One" that writers, readers and anyone else who loves good language will enjoy.
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