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How To Write A Sentence: And How to Read One [Hardcover]

Stanley Fish
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 17 2011

“Like a long periodic sentence, this book rumbles along, gathers steam, shifts gears, and packs a wallop.”
 —Roy Blount Jr.
“Language lovers will flock to this homage to great writing.”

Outspoken New York Times columnist Stanley Fish offers an entertaining, erudite analysis of language and rhetoric in this delightful celebration of the written word. Drawing on a wide range of  great writers, from Philip Roth to Antonin Scalia to Jane Austen and beyond, Fish’s How to Write a Sentence is much more than a writing manual—it is a penetrating exploration into the art and craft of sentences.

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“Both deeper and more democratic than The Elements of Style.” (Financial Times)

“A guided tour through some of the most beautiful, arresting sentences in the English language.” (Slate)

“[Fish] shares his connoisseurship of the elegant sentence.” (The New Yorker)

“Stanley Fish just might be America’s most famous professor.” (BookPage)

“How to Write a Sentence is a compendium of syntactic gems—light reading for geeks.” (New York magazine)

“How to Write a Sentence isn’t merely a prescriptive guide to the craft of writing but a rich and layered exploration of language as an evolving cultural organism. It belongs not on the shelf of your home library but in your brain’s most deep-seated amphibian sensemaking underbelly.” (Maria Popova, Brain Pickings)

“[Fish’s] approach is genially experiential—a lifelong reader’s engagement whose amatory enthusiasm is an attempt to overthrow Strunk & White’s infamous insistences on grammar by rote.” (New York Observer)

“In this small feast of a book Stanley Fish displays his love of the English sentence. His connoisseurship is broad and deep, his examples are often breathtaking, and his analyses of how the masterpieces achieve their effects are acute and compelling.” (New Republic)

“A sentence is, in John Donne’s words, ‘a little world made cunningly,’ writes Fish. He’ll teach you the art.” (People)

“This splendid little volume describes how the shape of a sentence controls its meaning.” (Boston Globe)

“Like a long periodic sentence, this book rumbles along, gathers steam, shifts gears, and packs a wallop.” (Roy Blount Jr.)

“Language lovers will flock to this homage to great writing.” (Booklist)

“Fish is a personable and insightful guide with wide-ranging erudition and a lack of pretension.” (National Post)

“For both aspiring writer and eager reader, Fish’s insights into sentence construction and care are instructional, even inspirational.” (The Huffington Post)

“If you love language you’ll find something interesting, if not fascinating, in [How to Write a Sentence].” (

“[A] slender but potent volume. Fish, a distinguished law professor and literary theorist, is the anti-Strunk & White.” (The Globe and Mail)

“You’d get your money’s worth from the quotations alone…if you give this book the attention it so clearly deserves, you will be well rewarded.” (Washington Times)

“The fun comes from the examples cited throughout: John Updike, Jane Austen…all are cited throughout.” (Washington Post)

“How to Write a Sentence is the first step on the journey to the Promised Land of good writing.” (Saudi Gazette)

“How to Write a Sentence is a must read for aspiring writers and anyone who wants to deepen their appreciation of literature. If extraordinary sentences are like sports plays, Fish is the Vin Scully of great writing.” (Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, authors of "They Say/I Say")

“Coming up with all-or-nothing arguments is simply what Fish does; and, in a sense, one of his most important contributions to the study of literature is that temperament…Whether people like Fish or not, though, they tend to find him fascinating.” (The New Yorker)

From the Back Cover

Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines. Stanley Fish appreciates fine sentences. The New York Times columnist and world-class professor has long been an aficionado of language. Like a seasoned sportscaster, Fish marvels at the adeptness of finely crafted sentences and breaks them down into digestible morsels, giving readers an instant play-by-play.

In this entertaining and erudite gem, Fish offers both sentence craft and sentence pleasure, skills invaluable to any writer (or reader). How to Write a Sentence is both a spirited love letter to the written word and a key to understanding how great writing works; it is a book that will stand the test of time.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Small package; big ideas June 12 2011
There's more to a (good) sentence than meets the eye. Stanley Fish knows quite a bit about it and, using quite few dazzlers of his own, lets us in on some of the finer points.

For starters, sentences aren't REALLY what you might think they are; a dry collection of 'parts', strung together with Leggo connections and 'rules', though the rules and the stringing together are important. This fertile bundle of revelations will get you thinking about things WAY beyond grammar - all the way to how sentence structure colours reality (but, don't worry, it's not essential that you do so).

The book jacket has one of the reviewers describing the author as the "Vin Scully of great writing". That sells Fish short by a country mile or more - sportscasters merely describe WHAT happened; Fish unpacks sentences in a manner that gets at the heart of WHY.

I have a love/hate relationship with many small books. I'm not ambivalent about this one. If you want to get a sense of writing as an organic process, some fascinating perspectives on writing generally and some memorable literary signposts, you won't be disappointed with this book.
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4.0 out of 5 stars recommended to me Dec 21 2013
By Julia H
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Just started reading it but looks fantastic. If you enjoy writing this is for you. Delivery took a long time, just received this book two days ago and ordered Nov 25 now Dec 21, however it is a busy time of year.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The best Aug. 5 2012
By dove
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This guy , Mr Fish, is a master. A wonderful book. I wish he would just keep writing and writing. very solid points and tips on how to improve that you would not get from the now so called famous "shrunk and not-write", pun intended. This is a wonderful book, I wish someone would have given me this many years a go , very sad that that it took so long. Buy it, it is worth it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable June 22 2012
This is a really fun read. And it is also immensely helpful to any serious reader or writer. Fish doesn't just outline principles or techniques, but he provides LOTS of examples. This book is stuffed full of excellent examples of great sentences which illustrate what he is saying.

The chapters about first and last sentences are simply delightful. I think I will never again read a book without paying careful attention to the opening and closing line again!

My only complaint is that the last couple pages are far annoyingly sentimental and gushy.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  68 reviews
225 of 232 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Do You Like Sentences?" Jan. 25 2011
By AdamSmythe - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Author Annie Dillard ("The Writing Life," 1989) was asked by a student, "Do you think I could be a writer?" Dillard's response: "Do you like sentences?" According to Stanley Fish, author of "How to Write a Sentence," it's as important for writers to genuinely like sentences as it is for great painters to like paint. For those who enjoy an effective sentence and all that it involves, this short (160 page) book is insightful, interesting and entertaining. For those who consider reading or writing a chore, perhaps this book can help one's interest level and motivation regarding sentences, though the author's intended audience is clearly those with a genuine interest in writing.

Fish would seem to be well qualified to write, having taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. However, as any student who has suffered with a highly qualified--yet thoroughly boring--professor knows, a significant part of the education/communication process involves instilling motivation. That's where Fish shines. If it might seem that a whole book on sentences has to be boring, Stanley Fish quickly overcomes this perception. His book is divided into 10 chapters: (1) Why Sentences?; (2) Why You Won't Find the Answer in Strunk and White [Strunk and White authored the classic, "The Elements of Style"]; (3) It's Not the Thought That Counts [nothing like a little provocation to get us interested]; (4) What Is a Good Sentence?; (5) The Subordinating Style; (6) The Additive Style; (7) The Satiric Style: The Return of Content; (8) First Sentences; (9) Last Sentences; and (10) Sentences That Are About Themselves (Aren't They All?).

Author Fish includes many examples of powerful sentences from a very wide range of writers, such as Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Cicero, Lewis Carroll, Michel de Montaigne, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens and others. Here's one illustrative example from John Updike: Describing the home run Ted Williams hit at his last at-bat in Boston's Fenway Park on September 28, 1960, Updike wrote, "It was in the books while it was still in the sky." Think about that for a minute.

In conclusion, Stanley Fish is an enthusiastic writer, and he manages to convey and transmit his enthusiasm for writing clear, effective sentences in this highly readable book. If you are interested in writing (and reading), this book is worth your careful consideration.

UPDATE on January 29, 2011: I wrote the above from the viewpoint of the reader contemplating buying this book for his or her own use. As I think more about the book, however, there's another possibility worth exploring. Specifically, this book could make a fine graduation (or other) gift to a niece, nephew or friend's child. First, it's short and easy to read, which means it might actually get read. Second, good writing is important in any profession. Third, the book helps reinforce the point that if you want to get good at something, it pays to study experts in the field. Fourth, and perhaps most important, the book supports the point that success in writing--as in virtually all endeavors--comes from practice, practice, practice. That's a pretty useful message to send any student.
45 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent guide to language by someone who obviously loves it Jan. 27 2011
By R Ruby - Published on
I have long been a fan of Fish's work, both for a scholarly audience (Surprised by Sin) and a more general one (Save the World on Your Own Time). "How to Write a Sentence" really gets to the essence of what makes Fish one of the greatest living literary critics: his obvious love of language. In this deceptively simple how-to, his aesthetic appreciation of virtuosic writing, his ear for poetry, and his deep understanding of the logic and craft of sentence construction are all on display. "How to Write a Sentence" goes twelve rounds with "The Elements of Style" and remains standing. If I may venture a prediction, I'd say that a generation from now, Fish's book, and not Strunk and White's, will be considered the standard guide for those who want to know how to write a sentence and how to read one.
27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Didn't love it March 3 2011
By Wood Foster-Smith - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I'm a lover of sentences, so I had high expectations for this book. I was disappointed to find that most of the book, especially in the latter half, consists of the author extolling sentences he likes in an overblown style that serves to obfuscate, rather than illuminate, the sentences he is trying to parse.

The first few chapters were instructive in becoming aware of different sentence styles, independent of content -- the subordinating vs. additive styles -- and in the recognition of sentences as "forms," of which there are a limited number, that can be applied with infinite variety to a writer's purpose by adding the right content. I got a lot out of these parts of the book. Once the author begins to add content to the mix though, he quickly falls in love with his own voice, to the exclusion of (it seemed to me) the voice of the writer whose sentence he is talking about, as well as to the exclusion of my interest.

The early parts of the book did get me interested in learning more, though, about different rhetorical styles and the history of rhetoric in general. So while I don't think this book is great in itself, I do think it's a good entry point to other topics related to writing and appreciation of its skilled practitioners.
171 of 217 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Writing, Oversimplified Feb. 1 2011
By Howard Goldowsky - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
What I like about this book, what I really like, is how Stanley Fish cares about good writing. Fish's love for sentences shines from the first page to the last; it could not be more pronounced. HOW TO WRITE A SENTENCE starts well enough, as Fish relays how a great piece of writing finds itself at the mercy of great sentences. In the first four chapters, the reader learns a few basic (somewhat technical) parts of a sentence, and how these little parts -- often taken for granted by inexperienced readers -- become building blocks to masterpieces (Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald). The next three chapters examine three different "styles" of sentences. The styles are Subordinating, Additive, Satiric, names chosen arbitrarily by Fish himself. These chapters give examples of each style from famous writers. The book rounds out with a chapter on "first sentences" (from famous books) and another on "last sentences."

In my opinion, the book contains one serious flaw.

Fish believes that good writing starts with sentence templates and ends when the writer fills in the templates with content. Fish backs his thesis with example after example of "great" sentences that adhere to his templates. Fish claims that there are a finite number of templates that can be filled with an infinite combination of words, the content. As an exercise, Fish asks the reader to "copy" the structure of simple sentences (John ate meat -- subject, verb, object) and then to fill in the template with more complex words and phrases, until the student's sentence becomes 100 words or more. In this way, Fish claims, the student may learn the craft of writing.

Such advice is boloney.

Content drives writing. Sentence style may be a necessary condition of good writing, but content drives the style, not the other way around. Not only does content drive the style of a sentence, it drives the structure of paragraphs and entire bodies of work. If every writer found a style first and then stuffed their content into (sentence, paragraph, large-scale) templates, then good writers would still be writing like they just stepped out of 9th grade English class. Thankfully, and for the sake of his book, Fish's own writing does not conform to his conventions. Fish seems to have rationalized how good writing works, but he doesn't seem to realize that he uses more intuition than he realizes.

What strikes me funny is that Fish gives example after example of what he claims to be great sentences. These sentences all appear in famous work written by famous writers. Time after time, in example after example, Fish falls victim to the same Post Hoc fallacy with which so many "writing critics" blind their ability to analyze good writing (and in turn limit their ability to improve as writers themselves). The blinded critic, Fish being no exception, finds a piece of writing already considered good by general consensus and then proceeds to explain "why" it is good.

I'll give an example from Chapter 7, "The Satiric Style." Fish uses an example from J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words.

Austin: "And we must at all costs avoid over-simplification [ironically enough], which one might be tempted to call the occupational disease of philosophers if it were not their occupation."

Fish spends an entire page analyzing this sentence and creating a sentence of his own, based on Austin's template, until finally he comes to this conclusion about his imitation: "Is there a formula here? Yes...Not as snappy and whiplike as Austin's sentence, but in the ballpark."

This book does not preach Picasso, folks. This book advocates imitation. Ladies and gentlemen, take your body and imagine it sliding gracefully and comfortably into a tailor-made Ralph Lauren suit. Next, imagine yourself stuffed into a $99 Wal-Mart special. What would you rather wear? How would you rather write?
30 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable read; helpful for students struggling with syntax Jan. 25 2011
By T. Halkowski - Published on
This book is an enjoyable read for good readers and writers, and could be quite helpful for those who struggle with syntax. All along the way, Fish raises some rather deep and interesting ideas regarding the relationship of language to reality. Highly recommended!
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