Sunday, May 22, 2011

How Do You Write a Sentence? Thoughts on "How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One" by Stanley Fish

Part 1 of 3
In his promising but compact book How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One, Stanley Fish teases the reader into thinking composing at the sentence level necessitates a magical potion, key, or formula. All one needs to write like the masters is access to the Holy Grail of syntax.

Early on Fish promises "to give you both sentence pleasure and sentence craft, the ability to appreciate a good sentence and the ability to fashion one" (8). He does a much better job advocating for appreciation than offering ideas for craft.

Although I found no magic potion in HtWaS, I did rediscover important notions about composing sentences and offer a few of Fish's kernels here:

1. I like Fish's definition of a sentence: (1) "a sentence is an organization of items in the world; and (2) a sentence is a structure of logical relationships (16).

Activity: To illustrate his point, Fish suggest one observe items in a room and list four or five. Next, "add a verb or a modal auxiliary (would, should, could, must, may, might, shall, can, will)." Lastly, take this potpourri and construct a sentence, adding words as necessary. My items: dogs, computer, couch, phone, and might. My sentence: The dogs might mess up my blog post if they jump on the couch and onto the computer while I check my phone for texts. 

Fish has a point to make from this simple exercise that, theoretically, one can alter to create a finite number of sentences: When we compose sentences from random words, and when we add other words to our random list to create what grammatically we call a sentence, we construct relationships.

Words alone are merely words we label as various parts of speech. Only by adding relationship building words to other words can we compose sentences. In Fish's words:

It is important to understand that the relationships that form the sinews and relays of sentences are limited. There is the person or thing performing an action, there is the action being performed, and there is the recipient or object of the action. That's the basic logical structure of many sentences: X does Y to Z...(this is the key point, ...): doer, doing, done to" (18).

The fear of making mistakes, argues Fish, paralyzes many would-be writers, which, of course, composition teachers know all too well. When writers remember that the key to constructing sentences resides in the structural relationships one desires to present, the writer is free to remember "there is only one error to worry about, the error of being illogical, and only one rule to follow: make sure that every component of your sentences is related to the other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous," unless ambiguity is the writer's objective (20).

Fish rightly notes exercises such as the construction of sentences from random words have value only when the writer reflects on the act of writing and deconstructs the previously crafted sentences.

2. For developing writers, Fish advocates focusing on form rather than thoughts. He suggests a sentence expansion exercise in which the writer builds a monstrous sentence from a kernel sentence. Teachers will recognize this exercise as what has been called a "rubber-band sentence," so called because like a rubber band, adding phrases and subordinate clauses to the base sentence stretches it to the breaking point.

Fish offers examples, but here's one of my own based on his model.
Base sentence: Puck chased the ball. (Puck is my dog).
Expanded sentence: On a rainy Sunday evening, while Snug--an anxious Schnauzer his owners initially thought was a Poodle cross--snored on the couch and while Ken watched "60 Minutes," Puck, the little white Terrier with the sweet smile, whose previous owners abandoned him at the city animal shelter, chased the broken, neon green tennis ball thrown repeatedly by his owner, a game that gave him joy beyond any other activity, a game he anticipated playing upon waking each morning, a game of which he never tired despite his rapid panting, and a game that kept his weary owners from completing any leisurely activity. 

The key to building such sentences lies in the relationships among the various parts to the base sentence. Students don't necessarily need to know all the grammatical terminology nor should developing writers worry about the occasional misplaced modifying phrase. Simply using different three-word sentences and practicing new variations of the model empowers student writers.

In Part 2, I'll share more thoughts about Fish's book and ideas about writing and reading sentences.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic, Glenda. This post is bringing me back to my studies of Noam Chomsky.

    I like the idea of building a monstrous sentence. Students will have the opportunity to identify the 'bones' of the sentence - subject/predicate (something with which they struggle). And, I might just use the mystique of 'relationships' - what teen is not interested in relationships? - as a hook next year when introducing the basic sentence components.