Sentencing Guidelines: Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence

February 16, 2011 | 3 6 min read

coverI am having trouble with a sentence. The point I would like to make is that I wish Stanley Fish’s new book had taken a different approach. Complicating that is that I mean for it to be a first sentence, and, hence, it bears all the burdens of a first impression. As a place to start, consider:

Although I have generally loved Stanley Fish’s work, I found his new book disappointing.

Weakening this sentence is that awful “generally.” I have adopted, it seems, an academic’s defensive precision: “I certainly wouldn’t want to say I have loved all of Fish’s work, I haven’t read all of Fish’s work and I don’t want to be held responsible for it.” That “generally,” and the underlying thought it betrays, is weaselly, and, really, I can’t recall ever actually disliking one of Fish’s essays (which is not to say I never disagreed)[1]. It’s gotta go.

Although I have loved Stanley Fish’s work, I found his new book disappointing.

Of course, now it seems like my sentence is missing a word. I could replace it with something. “Always”? Too…breathless. Especially with “loved.” I’m not sure what to do.

I suppose this sentence is an example of the

Although [general condition], [exception to the general condition].

form. We use this form a lot, of course, in the (often false) hope of awakening interest in our readers. In order for this move to really work, the reader has to have some investment in the general condition, or else the general condition needs to be such a commonplace that it would be surprising that I would be disputing it. Mostly neither condition obtains, and what the construction of my sentence really represents is lazy, good-enough-to-get-started writing.

Let’s ditch the offending clause.

I found Stanley Fish’s new book disappointing.

At least this has the advantage of directness. But now, the sentence is about me, which I guess would be OK, especially if I was an important reviewer of books on writing, or if I was participating in some forum where Fish’s book was well known. As it is, though, this sentence has misplaced emphasis, about what I found rather than Fish’s book. I could invert it —

Stanley Fish’s new book disappointed me.

— but even inverted, it’s about my disappointment, and, worse, it now has an unfortunate schoolmarmy tone to it: “Stanley, you have not lived up to my expectations.”

Well, let’s just take me out of it.

Stanley Fish’s new book is disappointing.

In many ways, this is better. It is declarative. It takes an unsoftened stand. That the statement is my opinion isn’t really lost, since as the author of the sentence it is obviously my opinion. It might even awaken a reader’s interest: “disappointing how?” I could live with this sentence. However, I have altogether lost my original intention which was less about the disappointingness of Fish’s book and more about expressing my wish that he had taken a different approach.

You see, a while ago Fish wrote several editorials about writing in his New York Times column. In those, he argued, just like he does in his new book, that the form of a sentence is the proper focus for composition instruction. Much like what classical rhetoricians believed about eloquence, Fish argues you can teach students to write by teaching them to pour their ideas into the molds of well-formed sentences. Unfortunately, the notions of figure and trope in rhetoric kind of degenerated, like expositions of grammar often degenerate, into butterfly-pinning, and I don’t know of anyone who much teaches polysyndeton or aporia[2] in their public speaking course nowadays. What I had hoped for, I guess, was not an extension of his argument, or a further call to pay attention to form in writing instruction. I hoped Fish would actually begin to catalogue the forms themselves, to begin to set all of the available rhetorical variations into some sort of order.

I mean, take the form I offered before:

Although [general condition], [exception to the general condition].

There is a lot you can do with this. Students can be asked to produce a bunch of examples of the case, and thereby learn to use it fluently. You can notice that the “although” can be moved to the second clause with just a slight change in emphasis, and, I think, an improved sentence resulting. (“I have generally loved Stanley Fish’s work, although I found his new book disappointing.”) You could develop a notation system — like sentence diagramming! — that captured the relation of the clauses and the optional placement of the “although.” You could notice that the second placement of “although” can be replaced by “however” or “but,” but not the first, and try to explain why. You could observe that this species of sentence is a member of a larger genus, something like

[statement], [contrasting statement].

coverwhose various members entail differing specific relations between the clauses, and who require differing coordinating words between. (For example, see Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say.) You could provide rhetorical analyses of each form you identify, much like I did earlier when I concluded that my original sentence was merely lazy, since it offered an irritant that wasn’t particularly irritating as a way to pretend to coax interest. This all seems to me, as it does to Fish, to be good work for students to do.

So my disappointment with Fish’s book is that it doesn’t offer a program to catalogue all of the various forms of sentences and variations and genuses and species,[3] with rhetorical analyses for each. To try again to communicate this, it might be best to go back to my original statement of my intent:

I wish Stanley Fish’s new book had taken a different approach.

What I have lost here from the earlier attempts, besides my explicit disappointment, is the warmth toward Fish’s work that I have felt in the past. That, and there’s nothing here to really engage a reader uninvested in Fish’s approach. What I really want to express is the mixed feelings I have around my disappointment in Fish’s new book. Let’s go for that:

I admit, I found Stanley Fish’s new book disappointing.

I admit, I like this new sentence.[4] It doesn’t outright say anything about my affection for Fish’s work, but it implies it pretty well without breathlessness. What I think is nice about it is that it suddenly has a voice (the previous sentences seem to me to be generically academic), and it seemingly — aporetically — places the blame for my disappointment on me rather than on Fish’s book. It expresses shame over having to admit that I found his book disappointing, and shame, I think, can sell a sentence.

So, although it isn’t really fair to criticize an author for not writing the book you wanted them to write, I admit, I found Stanley Fish’s new book disappointing. I can think of all sorts of reasons Fish wouldn’t actually want to take on the project I outlined for him, I mean, just to start with, it is pretty much endless, and if one were to take it seriously, one would inevitably end up, just like the classical rhetoricians, butterfly-pinning all of the various forms one found, an activity which entirely loses the point, I think, of the instruction Fish intends. You can catalogue and dissect, like God’s own grammar teacher, or like the authors all of those sentence diagrams I was forced to study in fifth grade, and learn literally nothing about how to write effectively, a point which Fish’s book, and, indeed, most every recent book that tries to help us write better, makes.

Back when I was trying to learn to play jazz guitar, I came across a book, Patterns for Jazz, that seemed to me to hold the promise of finally figuring out how to play across chord progressions. Apart from a minuscule amount of discussion (most of which concerns “how to use this book”), the book consists of little musical phrases, mostly four and eight notes long, that are to be transposed and played across an array of chord sequences. You could — I did — play these patterns over and over in hopes of learning enough phrases for each chord that you could sound halfway competent when confronted with “All of Me.” This book, in short, is the jazz equivalent of the writing text I wanted Fish to write: “Here are the forms. Put them to use.”

I never learned to play jazz guitar. I don’t know if that should be attributed to a failure of pedagogy, or merely a failure of musician. But, in retrospect, I can see that I wasn’t really using the text in the way that the authors of Patterns for Jazz meant. The point they intended (I think) was that students should play the patterns so much that they would be able to spontaneously predict how any given note or pattern would sound in the musical context they found themselves in. That is, you practice the rote forms so that you know your instrument and the chords so well that you don’t need rote forms to create.

Fish doesn’t seem to make his students spend too much time filling in sentence templates. Instead, he suggests that they elaborate simple forms into complex ones, discover variations and manipulations of forms (much like my observation, above, that the “although” could occupy two locations interchangeably), and, in general, observe how relationships between things and activities are manifested in sentences, and learn how to create those relationships. Like the successful jazz musician, students learn to attend to form and context (“prehearing” is the word Patterns for Jazz uses) in order to express themselves competently. Although he doesn’t say so, I believe Fish already knows that the butterfly project is hopeless. In fact, at least in a sense, you could summarize his whole program (including his literary criticism) as a disciplined approach to paying attention to sentences. If you can do that, he says, and not allow yourself to get bogged down arguing or applauding what the sentence is saying, or likewise mired in grammar and correctness, you can learn to write.

Back | 1. This parenthetical is also weaselly, and for exactly the same reason.
Back | 2. This essay being an example of aporia.
Back | 3. That was polysyndeton.
Back | 4. [confession], [revelation].

is a part-time college instructor (for Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and Hamline University) and full-time father. He lives in Saint Paul, MN, with his family.