How to write a sentence


Photo courtesy FT.com
Adam Haslett, The Financial Times

The question of how forms of writing produce forms of thought is one that the literary critic and legal scholar Stanley Fish has been wrestling with most of his career. He first came to prominence in the late 1970s with his theory of “interpretative communities”. This held that all readings of literary texts are inescapably bound up with the cultural assumptions of readers, an uncontroversial proposition now but one that quickly earned him the sloppy epithet of “relativist”.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s he turned the Duke University English department into the headquarters of the then burgeoning “theory” industry before, in 1999, surprising the academic world by moving to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he set himself the task of trying to renovate undergraduate education in basic skills like writing. Though he doesn’t mention that experience in his new book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, it’s not far off stage. The problem with Strunk & White, in Fish’s view, is that “they assume a level of knowledge and understanding only some of their readers will have attained,” that is, the Cornell kids whose secondary education did at least a halfway decent job of teaching them the basics.

Fish’s aim is to offer a guide to sentence craft and appreciation that is both deeper and more democratic. What, at base, is a sentence? he asks, and then goes on to argue that the standard answer based in parts of speech and rules of grammar teaches students “nothing about how to write”. Instead, we should be examining the “logical relationships” within different sentence forms to see how they organise the world. His argument is that you can learn to write and later become a good writer by understanding and imitating these forms from many different styles.

Read the full review by Adam Haslett at FT.com