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.

 

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