Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

author Stanley Fish

“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!'" ~ Stanley Fish, author of How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One.

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.


1. "Language is not a handmaiden to perception; it is perception; it gives shape to what would otherwise be inert and dead."


2. "Know what makes a sentence more than a random list, practice constructing sentences and explaining what you have done, and you will know how to make sentences forever."


3. "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)."


4. "The shape of an artfully made sentence, like a piece of sculpture, can be turned this way and that, revealing from each new perspective new meanings, new shades, new colors."


5. "Pick your effect, figure out what you want to do, and then figure out how to do it."


6. "If you are testing yourself against anything, it is the danger of looking as if you were trying too hard to be the kind of writer whose labors show."


7. "Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation."


8. "Sentence craft and sentence appreciation are not trivial pursuits. They engage us in the stringent and salutary exploration of the linguistic resources out of which our lives and our very selves are made."


9. "The end, the goal, the aspiration is to say something, and the something you want to say will be the measure of whether you have written a sentence that is not only coherent but good."


10. "If you know sentences, you know everything. Good sentences promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world."