Stanley Fish’s “How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One”

Is that an adverbial clause in your pocket or are you happy to see me?

How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One was an interesting read that spawned my Great Opening Lines blog posts. I enjoyed it, didn’t always agree with it. The one truly fatal flaw (to me) is the lack of exercises, something like “Here’s a rotten sentence, fix it. See possible solutions in Appendix A”.

Fish’s explanations of what makes a sentence worth reading become – to me – increasingly complex as the book progresses. I was bordering on being lost by the time I got to his “First Sentences” chapter and started skimming, looking for the meat – the very thing he warns authors against – too many readers, when unsure of what’s going on – skim until they get to something they can understand.

He also takes on Strunk&White and offers that the Little Book is only useful once you no longer need it; once you know enough that you understand what it’s about. I strongly disagree with that and liken Strunk&White to a mechanic’s manual of the English language. Yes, you do need to know enough to understand what’s in the book, no, once you know enough it’s usefulness increases because it helps you convey your thoughts quicker (note: not “more quickly”).
But Fish’s book is about a sentence’s beauty, not its elegance, and that’s another place we differ.