How to Write a Sentence | Stanley Fish

I hesitate to write this review. As I read Fish’s book on sentences, I constantly analyzed how he constructed his own. Now I’m writing my review, conscious that my sentences have a long way to go before even approaching greatness.

Fish is a connoisseur of sentences. He’s unapologetic about it:

Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines. I appreciate fine sentences. 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!” (3)

His sentence collection, developed over the years, is the great strength of this book. Fish uses examples from Annie Dillard to Lewis Carroll, from John Donne to Edgar Allan Poe to illustrate his points. He isn’t so enamored with a particular style of writing that he cannot appreciate and enjoy the English language in all its forms.

The strongest thing I learned from How to Write a Sentence was the difference between the “subordinating style,” where every sub-clause is neatly and logically tucked into place and the “additive style”, where clauses ramble on to paint a mood more than argue a point.

If there’s a weakness in this book it’s the overall feeling of pretentiousness that surfaces. The tone of his writing felt almost condescending at times. Rather than hearing the excitement of someone itching to share his sentence collection to his friends, you read the wizened teacher encouraging his students to practice, so that one day, they too will be able to write well.

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