The Humble Sentence

Photo by Holly Chaffin [CC0 Public Domain] via

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read OneHow to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My reading year began with Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book. Adler mentions (p. xi) that after the book became a best-seller, it was parodied by How to Read Two Books and, more seriously, How to Read a Page. So when I saw How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, I was intrigued. 

With my usual marginalia noticeably absent, I must say the book was worth reading, but it is relatively easy enough to take in in one go. The book provides numerous examples of great sentences, including great beginning and ending sentences. (Dickens doesn't get a mention other than a suggestion that his were over-rated.) There are a number of exercises using various sentence types that are useful. 

Hemingway thought that if he could write just one good sentence, then the day was well-spent (A Moveable Feast, p. 22):
I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.' So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.
Fish doesn't go so far, but sees the sentence as a building block for all great writing. I particularly liked the idea that to be a writer, one has to like sentences, much like the painter who paints because she likes the smell of paint (p. 1). And the poem by Kenneth Koch really sums up this delightful little book:
One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day the Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.
I would say that the major benefit of reading this work is that it brings the sentence back as the unit of work. I tend to focus more on paragraphs as corralled ideas, but overlook the importance of the humble sentence. Having read this work, I hope I can implement some of the clever suggestions and see the role of the humble sentence in framing not just stories, but also my academic work.

I found this book on Maria Popova's Brain Pickings.