Title: How to Write a Sentence
Author: Stanley Fish
Publisher: Harper Collins Books
Publication Date: 2011
Every summer, I spend some time looking for new resources to use in my classroom. I had heard mention of How to Write a Sentence from an NPR Interview with Stanley Fish in 2011. It was one of those books on my to read list, but I hadn’t gotten around to it until this summer. After checking it out of the local library, I devoured the first half during one afternoon. I took copious notes and came across several good ideas for use in my classroom.
Fish paints writing sentences as both an art and a science. There are stylistic and content concerns to consider when writing a sentence, which Fish refers to as
an organization of items in the world…
a structure of logical relationships
Fish considers sentences as a building block for a written work, but also as a gem to be pulled and studied from a piece of writing. The book is filled with several of his favorite sentences from greats such as Dickens, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Salinger, and more. He puts the idea of sentences as an art and a science best in the following equation:
Sentence craft = sentence comprehension = sentence appreciation
The only downside to the book is in the second half. Chapters 1-3 cover HOW to write a sentence-logical structure or the relationships between actor, actions, and objects acted upon. There are many excellent examples of sentences meeting the formulas. He even goes so far as to discredit the way grammar is taught in schools traditionally, which I agree with wholeheartedly. If students are worried about figuring out the vocabulary of the elements of language, instead of how to use the elements correctly, they don’t learn how to write better and often don’t even learn the vocabulary of the elements either. He offers up the simplest sentence form as a building block of all sentences, because they all have to start somewhere.
DOER + DOING + DONE TO = Simple Sentence Structure
Chapters 4-7 concern the rhetorical structures of language-the argument or content. Fish focuses on 3 different styles: subordinating, additive, and satiric. He does not insist these are the only styles, just that they are the most apparent and easy to begin working on writing better sentences. Fish goes on to finish the book by discussing great first and last sentences. I must admit, at this point, I had grown a bit tired of reading a book about writing sentences. But, this probably had more to do with the break I took between reading the first half and the last half of the book.
I did gain several practices I can use in my classes to help students begin writing better sentences. As Fish points out, marking a sentence fragment, as a fragment on the paper and returning it to the student doesn’t help much. Teaching students a sentence fragment is a fragment out of context, out of real writing, is not helpful. But, teaching students the basic structure (Doer+Doing+Done To) and how to expand the simple sentence will produce results.
English teachers out there will know the equation used is Subject+Predicate+Object, but in reality, when will a real writer ever think in or use those terms? I find we often teach a complex vocabulary, usually out of context, for ideas or structures which could be simplified and understood more easily and lead to better writing. I plan on implementing several strategies from Fish’s book to see how useful they may be. Here are some of those ideas:
- Look around the room, pick 5 objects and add a verb or modal auxiliary (would, should, could, might) then write a sentence using those words. Start with the simple sentence structure, then expand. (pg 16)
- Start by writing a 3 word sentence. Expand to 15 words. Expand to 30 words. Expand to 100 words. (pg 23)
- Showing how “perfect grammar” can equal nonsense sentences: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” and how to fix such meaningless sentences. (pg 27)
- How to write sentences that cause reflection by using examples from works like King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” (pg 55)
- Anyone who loves words
- Anyone who teaches writing
- Anyone who loves reading about how others write