Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Forgetting Thoughts to Learn "How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One"

Part 2 of 3: In Part 1 I focused on Fish's ideas about relationships in sentences and activities for developing them. 

What if teachers were to instruct students to forget about content, the what of writing, and instead helped them learn the how of writing sentences? This is Stanley Fish's advice in How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.

Fish's advice would require a paradigm shift in writing instruction:

"The conventional wisdom is that content comes first...but if what you want to do is learn how to compose sentences, content must take a backseat to a mastery of the forms without which you can't say anything in the first place" (25). 

Many teachers, myself included, focus on essay structure: introduction, body, and conclusion. We find ourselves frustrated when students scratch their heads in confusion about how to write a thesis sentence and its placement at the end of the introduction. 

When I taught junior high in the mid-eighties, I spent considerable instructional time having students practice writing subordinating clauses they attached to kernel sentences that follow the subject + verb + object pattern. Later, I demonstrated how to move the subordinate clause from the beginning to the middle and then to the end of the base sentence. 

Fish's suggestion that "when it comes to formulating a proposition, form comes first; forms are generative not of specific meanings, but of the very possibility of meaning"...Form, form, form, and only form is the road to what the classical theorists called "invention," the art of coming up with something to say" (27). 

An essential truth, therefore, exists in students' denials of knowledge about what to do when it comes to putting thought to paper. It's the diction they get wrong, I think. Rather than not knowing what to say, they don't know how to say their thoughts. 

Activities such as text switching diction in Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" will lead writers to understand "forms" as opposed to parts of speech. In writing Fish claims: "You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free" (33).    
One form Fish advocates practicing is "Had I". For example, Had I known Joplin, Missouri would be hit by an F5 tornado, I would not have burned all my personal days. Had I gone to law school, I'd now be a member of a profession that receives more respect than teaching. Had I not eaten the treat Alyssa brought me, I'd have no guilty feelings. 

"Had I" sentences relate past actions (whether taken or not) to present ones (taken or not). "This very abstract account is an account of form; as a form, it is empty, but precisely because it is serves as a mold into which innumerable contents can be poured" (31). 

Fish suggests practicing other forms: "Even though," "Were I to," "Notwithstanding that," "Depending on whether," and "In the event that." Each offers ample opportunity for filling in the slots with one's own ideas. 

Function Follows Form: "What Is a Good Sentence?"

When contemplating the question Fish poses, writers typically employ stylistic constructions and devices, such as parallelism, balance, parataxis, etc. Similarly, Fish turns to Cicero, Aristotle, Milton, Swift, and others to build his argument, simply that all writers have a writing style:

"The shaping power of language cannot be avoided. We cannot choose to distance ourselves from it. We can only choose our style, not choose to abandon style, and it behooves us to know what the various styles in our repertoire are for and what they can do" (42). 

Here's the partial classification list for sentences Fish suggests:
  • short sentences and long sentences,
  • formal sentences and colloquial sentences,
  • sentences that satisfy expectations and sentences that don't,
  • sentences that go in a straight line and sentences that surprise,
  • right-branching sentences and left-branching sentences,
  • sentences that reassure and sentences that disturb,
  • quiet sentences and sentences that explode,
  • sentences that invite you in and sentences that exclude you,
  • sentences that caress you and sentences that assault you,
  • sentences that hide their art and sentences that ask readers to stand up and applaud.
Simply, the key to writing good sentences is to consider the effect you desire, identify what you want the sentence to do (say), and decide how best to accomplish these two objectives. 

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.