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Sentences That Take Your Breath Away

May 30, 2011

Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence

And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning. (Anthony Burgess)

This book of lessons on sentence craft and sentence appreciation motivated me to rethink the way I write. Stanley Fish did this by directing my focus to what a sentence is (a structure of logical relationships), giving me exercises to become familiar with the basic structures, and then illustrating styles of sentence making with many beautiful examples from the masters. Finally he set more exercises, based on imitating those examples.

Don’t try to follow rules, says Fish. Instead ask “What am I trying to do?” The number of possible answers to this question is infinite, but sentence structures are few. He teaches these forms by exercises such as expanding a three word sentence (“Jane slapped Jim”) into a hundred word sentence. Even practising with nonsense words (“slithy toves”) can improve verbal fluency, just as musicians practise scales.

Fish then moves on to styles, the ways a sentence represents a piece of reality. Styles are innumerable, but Fish considers two general styles: subordinating and additive. The subordinating style orders its components in relationships of causality, temporality and precedence. For example: “It was the books I read in high school rather than those I was assigned in college that influenced the choices I find myself making today.”

The additive style lists components in a loose sequence, unordered, like beads on a string. For example: “I read Hamlet, and the entire semester was a drag and I learned how to fly.” Here’s a more masterly additive sentence from Tana French:

Cherry blossoms falling soft on the drive, quiet smell of old books, firelight sparkling on snow-crystalled windowpanes at Christmastime and nothing would ever change, only the five of us moving through this walled garden, neverending.

There are many more examples in the book of various styles, including a magnificent page-long sentence from Martin Luther King, which Ramona Koval read during her delightful interview with Stanley Fish on the Book Show (podcast downloadable here).

I learnt much from this book about how sentences work and how to appreciate them, and as a result I began to reflect on my own practice. I realised that I tend to write short sentences, mainly in the subordinating style, almost never in the additive style. Fish’s exercises are helping me to open up my writing to different styles and forms. Riffing on Tana French’s sentence above, I produced:

The tinkle of water trickling to the paddy, hoes rising and falling as rows of women in conical bamboo hats weed the field, urgent quacking as men with long sticks herd ducks, the smell of smoke rising from burning rice straw, and my life will pivot around this narrow balcony where the two of us sit sipping strong black bitter coffee and looking up at the volcano keeping silent watch over the valley that is always changing and always the same.

Obviously I’ve only just stepped onto the road to better sentences, but I’m grateful to Stanley Fish for prompting me to take that step.

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