Monday, May 30, 2011

Why Write Sentences?: "How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One" Part 3


This is the third part in a three part series on the book.
 Part 1, Part 2

Throughout How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, Stanley Fish consistently emphasizes modeling as the most important tool for writers wanting to learn more about composition at the sentence level.

Although Fish spends consideralble white space describing three styles of senences--subordinating, additive, and satiric--his thoughts about first and last sentences will appeal both to writers and teachers.

When I teach students how to begin an essay or a speech, I emphasize the importance of the hook (attention-getting device). I use a fishing metaphor, obviously not original, since I teach in a nature-lover's paradise.

I offer students a menu of choices for first sentences: an anecdote, a quotation, a statistic, a joke, etc. Again, there's nothing new with these offerings.

Fish, in contrast, describes first sentences as having an "angle of lean" in that a first sentence points at the essay's subject; it anticipates the essence of an essay (99):

"Even the simplest first sentence is on its toes, beckoning us to the next sentence and the next and the next, promising us insights, complications, crises, and, sometimes, resolutions" (100).

Some first sentences point toward the future, some harken back to the past, and others challenge expectations. Still others create stasis, or offer meditative thoughts, or construct a narrative (plot), or require deliberation from the reader. Others construct arguments or describe characters.

Fish offers examples from both classical and contemporary first sentences to illustrate these ideas.

This shift to what first sentences do from different types of first sentences may offer teachers a way to engage students in stylistic considerations.
  • What do I want to say in my essay?
  • What must my first sentence say to lean toward my content?
These questions suggest an approach to teaching students how to begin an essay that I haven't considered often.

Conversely, last sentences also do more than sum up thoghts in an essay. Teachers often describe final sentences as clinchers. I usually suggest that students answer the question "So wht?" in their conclusions. They often struggle with this idea.

Fish proposes that last sentences "can refuse to sum up" (119). They can also "explode perspectives" (119).
Since last sentences don't have to get things going but are responsible for winding things down, Fish argues that they don't have as many responsibilities as first sentences.

To wit, he indicts some famous last sentences as not very good apart from their context:

It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done before; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.

After all, tomorrow is another day.

Fish critiques the former as too readily imitatied and the latter as too banal, apart from their famous contexts.

The best last sentences, argues Fish, stand alone as impressive on their own. Some, like the last sentnce in The Great Gatsby, are eligaic:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Admittedly, this is one of my favorite sentences in all of literature. Fish deconstructs the alliterative style of the sentnce as well as the nostalgic longing for a receding past, a promised land we can't reach:

This last sentnce mimes the treadmill we are on, mocking our efforts at acceleration with a series of b's--"beat," "boats," "borne," "back"--that keeps bringing us to the same place. We try to get ahead, but the current, both of life and the sentence, flows ceaselessly backward, carrying us again and again into the past, which is of course the sentence's last word. It says, here we are again (124).

Fitzgerald's last sentences resonates because of the irony of growing older and of witnessing change, change that often creates discomfort.

I find myself thinking about this longing for the past increasingly often, especially this past week as I witness the devastation in Joplin, Missouri via conversations with family, on television, and through social networking. We hear the longing, the being borne back into the past in the committment to rebuild what once was Joplin.

Other last sentences create dissolusion or peace; again Fish offers examples and analysis.

Toward the end of his little tome, Fish challenges readers to consider the many vantages from which we can view the best sentences and to

refuse the confines of the medium and deploy it as a springboard to truths it cannot express; use mortal language while bending, stretching, and even breaking it at the same time" (143).

Why write sentences? Why focus on the various forms for writing sentences? Because in a very real sense, the sentence sets the writer free; the sentence is the ultimate embodiment of truth.


  1. Great topic Glenda and well presented as always. Thanks for keeping me thinking :)

  2. Thanks for such a detailed examination of a topic that is so often presented as a formula.

    My favorite thing to tell students about their first sentences: "Your first sentence should be so good that after I read it, I'll need to go out for a walk."

    Sometimes I type up all of the first sentences from a batch of essays and present them to the class, anonymously of course. That's a certain type of modeling, I guess.


  3. I like the idea of collecting first sentences on a handout to distribute to students. Think I'll do this w/ both student essays and a collection of published first sentences, maybe some from Fish's book.

    It's the idea of formulaic first and last sentences I want students to abandon. How to get them to do that is, of course, the challenge.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Glenda! I know that sentence structure has been a great struggle for my students, and I think that implementing these ideas will help them (and me). Have a wonderful day!