How to Write a Sentence (Fish)

Not open for further replies.


Puritanboard Clerk
Fish, Stanley. How to Write a Sentence (and How to Read One). New York: Harper, 2011.

This book can be viewed from two different angles: a how-to manual for students of writing, and a compendium of aesthetically pleasing sentences. It should be read for both reasons. Stanley Fish, the legendary (or infamous) professor of law and English, describes the basics of a sentence: it is a structure of logical relationships. His definition, while excellent, is somewhat ironic, given that deconstructionists push back against the logical structure part.

Fish briefly touches on the “teaching grammar” debate, agreeing that teaching tables of grammar is not helpful, yet pointing out that teaching grammatical forms is still necessary. Grammar books err, he argues, because they focus on the wrong forms. Rather, it is necessary to see how each word functions in precisely its place in the sentence (Fish 17). Therefore, students of writing should begin with the following formula:

X does Y to Z: doer, doing, done to.

STOP: TAKE CHECK: “Scrutinize every part of your sentence and ask, ‘What does it go with?’ or ‘What does it support?’ or “What information does it give about some other part?’ or “What is it referring to?’--all variations of the master question, ‘How does it fit into the sentence’s logical structure’” (21-22).

Practice Your Forms

Fish suggests a number of exercises for budding writers to attain fluency. For example, take the opening stanza to “Jabberwocky.” It’s complete nonsense. Substitute words to make it make sense.

“They say/I say”

Taken from Graff and Birkenstein (2006), this template allows writers to practice intelligently disagreeing with a proposition. It goes like this:

“They say that money talks, but I say money corrupts.” Although Fish does not mention it, Jesus does the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount.

The point in all of this is to find templates that generate writing ideas, sharpening the focus, giving a rhetorical flourish when possible.

Three Different Sentence Styles

The three main, though not exclusive, sentence styles are the coordinating, additive, and satiric. We will focus on the coordinating style, as the additive is close to stream of consciousness. There is a place for that, but it is not here.

The best style for logical thought, of course, is the subordinating style. Subordination orders its components by causality: temporal, logical, etc. ). Some marks of a good style: short sentences with parallel structures in the present tense with small words (48).

Furthermore, an aphorism or proverb, when placed in the middle of a train of thought, delays the forward progress and builds tension.

Sentences first and last

To be effective, your first sentence must have future content in mind. The sentence “leans forward and points to the future” (102). By contrast, good last sentences are more constrained, often coming across as elegiac (119).

Now we will end with a perfect sentence. John Updike describes the home run Ted Williams hit in his last at bat.

“It was in the books while it was still in the sky.”
Not open for further replies.