Stanley Fish — How to Write a Sentence (And How to Read One)

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This brilliant little book is really opening my mind up to new ways of writing, reading, and teaching — and I’m a graduate in English Literature who has supposedly spent a number of years thinking about the language. Well, if I’ve spent 10ish years thinking about the language, Professor Fish has spent…. well, he’s spent a lot more time than me on thinking about this thing we call “English”.

It’s not for everyone — this book requires some ‘slow reading’ to be done, especially if you’re not familiar with the technical terms Fish uses. I suspect that people who consider themselves linguists might get annoyed by some bits that are perhaps a little bit unnecessary. Still, I’m finding this a productive book, in terms of the ways that I’m re-examining the way I teach students how to write a sentence.

Here’s a taste.

Quote 1 (Chapter 1):
My wife is a serious painter. When she and I go to a gallery we might both be impressed by the same painting, but she will be able to tell me, in analytical detail, what makes it impressive, how the painter did it. So it is with writing: the practice of analyzing and imitating sentences is also the practice of learning how to read them with an informed appreciation. Here’s the formula:

Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation.

Quote 2 (Chapter 2):
For decades researchers have been telling us that “the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or . . . even a harmful effect on the teaching of writing” (Research in Written Composition, 1963). I agree if by “the teaching of formal grammar” is meant memorizing the parts of speech or rehearsing the distinction between dependent and independent clauses or listing the uses of the subjunctive. That kind of rote knowledge is merely taxonomic. It explains nothing; students who acquire it have learned nothing about how to write, and it is no surprise when research demonstrates its nonutility.

 Quote 3 (Chapter 4):
In his great book How to Do Things with Words (1962), J.L. Austin considers the apparently simple sentence “France is hexagonal.” He asks if this is true or false, a question that makes perfect sense if the job of a sentence is to be faithful to the world. His answer is that it depends. If you are a general contemplating a coming battle, saying that France is hexagonal might help you assess various military options of defense and attack; it would be a good sentence. But if you are a geographer charged with the task of mapping France’s contours, saying that France is hexagonal might cost you your union card; a greater degree of detail and fineness of scale is required of mapmakers. “France is hexagonal,” Austin explains, is true “for certain intents and purposes” and false or inadequate or even nonsensical for others. It is, he says, a matter of the “dimension of assessment” — that is, a matter of what is the “right or proper thing to say as opposed to a wrong thing in these circumstances, to this audience, for these purposes and with these intentions.”

 

More quotes from this book here.

 

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

For editing and proofreading services, email kevinseahsg@gmail.com or call/SMS/whatsapp +65 97700557 for an obligation-free quotation. I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know your requirements.

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Essay scoring tip: deliver ‘truth’

People who grade essays are human beings, and human beings will always have their own biases. Here’s something that works (I know because I tested it out in JC, and I topped my school in GP!) that is almost never taught — if your essay delivers some kind of earth-shattering ‘truth’, the marker feels the urge to ignore your weaker points and just give you a higher grade.

Let us look at the SAT essay marking criteria, for example. (Yes, the SATs may be an American thing, but trust me, the essay marking schemes for the O- and A-levels are quite similar. These essay tests assess very similar abilities. A good writer is going to score well on any English essay test.) In the marking criteria, it states that for an essay to be given a 6 (the highest score), it “Effectively and insightfully develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons and other evidence to support its position” (emphasis mine). Now, how many times have you heard your English teacher talk about the need for an essay to be insightful? (I hope the answer is “many!”)

I like the way dictionary.com defines insightpenetrating mental vision or discernment; faculty of seeing into inner character or underlying truth. When you gain an insight into something important, you get a feeling of WOW or as some might put it, ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ (sry). That should be the feeling your essay gives your marker. The word that occurs most frequently in my head when I think about insight is the word “truth” (more often than not my brain goes TRUTH in big bright letters). When I read an insightful piece of writing, I feel like I know more about the truth of the world. For example, reading about the neuroscience of meditation and the various sociological ways of seeing the world simply blew my mind (ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ).

How do you include genuine truths or insights in your essays? You have to have experienced that ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ feeling, that feeling or wonder that comes with learning something genuinely insightful about the world. Optimally, by the time you sit for your examinations, you would have experienced ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ numerous times. This will allow you to respond to many essay questions with something genuinely worth writing about. You should have the feeling of “wow, that was a brilliant essay with a brilliant message, I need to blog about it when I get home so that more people will know about what I’ve written” when you step out of the examination hall. You get this feeling either by parroting/modifying a truth you have read about, or by spontaneously coming up with a truth of your own.

(Side note: the English language should have a word for “wow, that was a brilliant essay with a brilliant message, I need to blog about it when I get home so that more people will know about what I’ve written”. I propose ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ. Probably won’t catch on, though..)

Where do we find readily available truths and insights? A really popular place to start is the lovely TED website. In fact, you will often find speakers “demonstrat[ing] outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons and other evidence to support [their] position[s]” (that’s SAT marking criteria again). Another thing you could do is to look for non-fiction books about a subject you are interested in. I personally enjoy books about psychology or sociology, like this.

As a thoroughly rewarding and useful side effect, you get to learn more about the world while you prepare for your big essay examinations. So go get a dose of truth or insight. Good luck!

 

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

For editing and proofreading services, email kevinseahsg@gmail.com or call/SMS/whatsapp +65 97700557 for an obligation-free quotation. I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know your requirements.

Be warned: Web 2.0 does not promote sustained lines of thought

Straight from Wikipedia’s Web 2.0 entry:
A Web 2.0 site may allow users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to websites where people are limited to the passive viewing of content. Examples of Web 2.0 include social networking sites, blogs, wikis, folksonomies, video sharing sites, hosted services, web applications, and mashups.

Be warned, Web 2.0 does not promote sustained lines of thought. I think of sustained lines of thought as the kind of thinking you need to write a short story, an argumentative essay, a novel, an academic article, and so on. You need sustained lines of thought to solve big problems, to think up new systems of government, and to be able to criticize political and social arrangements with any amount of coherence.

My claim is that Web 2.0 does not promote this kind of thinking. Web 2.0 makes it too easy for us to entertain ourselves to death.

Web 2.0 acts, from my perspective, as a never-ending cesspool of the sweetest-smelling entertainment; Web 2.0 is heroin for the mind. As an illustration, let me pick from my own Facebook wall. On the 7th of January, 2014, I posted three links in quick succession. On the first link, I went “Oh dear.” On the second, I went “LOL..” On the third, “Wow.” (If you like, you can click on them to think about whether my responses were valid — I still think they were.)

Let’s imagine how my thought process might have gone during those moments I read, and posted, those links. On the first link, I experienced concern for the pastor involved. On the second, I was thoroughly amused by the article, and the concern for the pastor faded somewhere into the background. On the third, I was amazed by the pictures on the news website, the amusement from the previous link fading, and the concern essentially invisible by now. I hope we can all see that a Web 2.0 experience like that encourages and even rewards discontinuous, broken thought.

There is an argument to be made that Web 2.0 can facilitate continuous, sustained thought, especially when one already has the habit and mental discipline to chase a single subject down. You could, for example, view Sir Ken Robinson’s extremely popular TED talks, and subsequently read his books. That would be an admirable example of Web 2.0 facilitating sustained thought — you could form a very coherent philosophy of education that way.

However, I believe that using Web 2.0 in the manner described in the previous paragraph to be the exception, rather than the norm. Most of us (including Mr Seah!) just click link after link, chasing after the next ‘hit’of entertainment. (“Hit” is a druggie’s term for a dose of drugs.)

I have a suspicion that discontinuous thought is important in kickstarting creativity, but most of you young’uns out there need to develop that brain muscle you use to think in a sustained manner first. Wanna solve a big problem? Wanna write a good essay? Then develop that brain muscle!

Quick tip:
Reading a novel rapidly (in one or two days) helps my brain get used to the discipline it needs to focus for long periods of time. You might want to give that a go!

 

 

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

For editing and proofreading services, email kevinseahsg@gmail.com or call/SMS/whatsapp +65 97700557 for an obligation-free quotation. I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know your requirements.

You can hack anything

Yes, you can hack ANYTHING. I think most of us on the internet already know this, but we all could use a reminder.

Sales pitch #1
Are you the type who’s perpetually unhappy and morose? Is the tone of your existence that disgusting yellow-brown of misery and pain? Are you sad? Well, luckily for you, there’s actually such a thing as the science of happiness. They’ve discovered a whole bunch of things, but two things really hit me, from the research in the field. Firstly, you can actually ‘train’ your brain for happiness. Secondly, most people who chase after happiness will never really get it — it is that set of people who genuinely care for others and do something about it that find real peace.

(Note to self: write a blogpost about the difference between “happiness” and “peace”, and what our culture(s) seem to have done with those words.)

Sales pitch #2
Do you have the novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (by Mildred Taylor) assigned for your literature class? Well, you’re in luck, I’m here to give you a new hack I’ve found. There’s this little website called Coursera, you see, that carries free online university-level courses. In roughly six days, there will be a course starting titled “History of the Slave South” that will be very, very useful for understanding the novel. (There is a level of racism in the novel that you might find hard to understand if you don’t know anything about slavery.)

More than a means to understand a novel, the Coursera website, and others like it, allow people currently not enrolled in any university to go through basic level university courses, for free. And that’s pretty awesome, if you ask me.

Sales pitch #3
You need to hack your life, because if you don’t, you end up with much less than life has to offer you (if you’ve ever rooted and overclocked a cheap, slow-as-drunk-tortoises Android device, you’ll know what I mean). But I have to offer a word of warning:  just like actual computer devices, if you hack your life and your choices profoundly, you might find that the device doesn’t work as expected anymore. For example, if you’re bored with school you might want to check out my naughty post here, about fully utilising your time in school. If you read it, you will probably be able to envision how “hacking too much” in this case might make your school life go kaboom.

Yes, we make mistakes. Luckily for us, human beings are extremely resilient and hardy creatures. We bounce back from what life has to throw at us to hack another day.

(Sales pitch #4)

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

For editing and proofreading services, email kevinseahsg@gmail.com or call/SMS/whatsapp +65 97700557 for an obligation-free quotation. I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know your requirements.

The Fires

The bus was so crowded I could barely move. My nose was stuck in someone’s armpit groove. This man’s hygiene — oh! — I could not approve. The rhymes in my head could drop me dead, but no, it mustn’t be so, for to court I had to go.

I had refused to get off my bench, that lovely place where I could quench, where I could calm the fires inside, but I was by a policeman denied.

“Sir, sir?” his rough voice like a burr, “do you stay here?”

As much as I wanted to comment, my fires forced me silent. Yet, somewhere inside of me, I knew this would soon turn violent. Normal people don’t comprehend, that since I lost my wife, my heart would not mend. Now I sit by my bench, my fires I try to quench.

“Sir? You must come with me now.” The policeman approached me carefully, as if I was some endangered cash cow. Oh, would my fires never take a bow? Would they not go with him now?

“Please don’t touch me,” my fires whispered.

“Oh no,” the policeman demurred.

And so silence fell, like the deafening ring of an absent bell. I was vaguely aware of my disturbed peace, and I felt my self-control slightly increase.

“Please leave me alone,” I managed to moan.

My face contorted, my attempt at civility thwarted (once again my fires), I found myself transported.

Once again to the crazy space! It always felt like a delirious daze. Scratch, punch, bite, kick, I tried everything with that policeman. It was jarring, it didn’t make sense. Scratch, punch, bite, kick, and soon I found myself impounded by the man.

While I sat on that new, unfriendly bench, I thought about those men who cared for lions. Rescuing helpless cubs, and reintroducing them into the wild. Wasn’t meeting a lion who was not a child even worse than irons, even worse than wooden beating clubs? But these men risked their very lives, as if for their wives, just to hug a lion who was no longer a cub.

Those men lived more in five minutes than I ever would in a day. But this thought could not bring me round, this thought would not take my fires away. To live means that we die. To die means that we sleep? What if we walk around in an unending sleep of fear, because we hold our safety too dear?

The bus was so crowded I could barely move. My nose was stuck in someone’s armpit groove. But now it was time to get off. The judge would deliver his judgement, my fate would be sealed by the law and her wisdom. So be it. I rest my case.

(459 words)

Editing and proofreading services

Another satisfied customer

Another satisfied customer

MrSeah.com also offers editing and proofreading services!

Don’t settle for an error-laden website or publication. Error-free written language conveys an image of professionalism and competence.

As a freelance editor who has worked with some of the largest academic publishers in Singapore, I understand what it takes to shape language according to client demands. I also know my limitations — if the copy you send me exceeds my abilities to edit (e.g. a thesis on quantum theory for university professors), I will say so.

Each editing project will be charged according to the effort required. For example, the charges for a 500-word university essay will be higher, as compared to a simpler blogpost. I am committed to offering my clients value for money. In addition to ensuring that your publication has error-free language, I will also alert you to the following issues:

  • paragraphing
  • clarity of expression
  • accuracy of facts
  • attractiveness of products/services offered
  • when to use British or American English

For my Singaporean clients, please, don’t paiseh if your English isn’t perfect. That’s what I’m here for!

For editing and proofreading services, email kevinseahsg@gmail.com or call/SMS/whatsapp +65 97700557 for an obligation-free quotation. I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know your requirements.

Cool things you can get for free without stepping away from your computer (that will help with school)

This one’s for the Singaporeans, and is lovingly dedicated to the National Library Board (Singapore).

Cool things you can get for free without stepping away from your computer

1. Anything from the NLB’s eResources

Step 1: Go to http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg
Step 2: Log in with your NRIC.
Step 3: Go crazy!

Right, the one brilliant thing that top English and literature students can use is the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary (Online). It’s one monster of a dictionary. Here’s a picture to blow your mind (image credit: Oxford University Press).

Yes, that monster series of books is ONE dictionary. I only recommend this for top students because the amount of information in the OED is a little bit too much for people just starting to learn the language. It is especially useful for people who are studying old English (like Shakespeare), because the OED keeps track of words that have fallen out of usage .

For learners, I would recommend the simpler Merriam-Webster dictionary and thesaurus. But the users of the OED can always look at you guys and go, “teehee! Mine’s bigger than yours!”

There are MANY other things that one can get from the NLB eResources, but I won’t go that much into detail, unless my readers make some kind of request. I think it is enough to say that the NLB eResources gives you almost as much as any university out there. Yes, the NLB gives you access to the hallowed JSTOR archives.

2. The Overdrive app

This one’s for everybody. It’s NLB’s best-kept secret, but now I’m busting it wide open! Hurhur. It’s the Overdrive app for iPhone, Android, and everything else that goes “click”.

Step 1: Google “NLB Overdrive”
Step 2: Click and log in (you’ll need your NRIC again)
Step 3: Go crazy! 😀

Q: Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Dan Brown — what do they have in common?
A: You can get their books on the Overdrive app.

NEED I SAY MORE??

Actually, maybe I do. You might want to find out what you should be reading here and here. So, enjoy your free things, and thank me later!