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« India's Global Push | Main | Pakistan arrests CIA informants »

June 15, 2011


I confess that I have never read a "How to" book unless it related to cooking, knitting or some other form of manual craft. But that may well be because as a chemistry student, I spent a huge amount of my formal learning years attending to "How tos." Not doing so had the potential of things blowing up in one’s face, literally. Also, because literature for me has always been a pleasurable pastime and not required reading, I rarely ever spent time analyzing why I liked a particular piece of writing better than another.
Now that I think back, I remember that up until the 6th grade or so, we routinely did an exercise in our language classes (for all the languages taught in elementary school) that called for us to “use the following words in a sentence.” This was in addition to the essays we were required to write where we were tested for our ability to organize our thoughts at some length around a given topic. A list of random words (verbs, nouns and adjectives) was provided for us to construct a cogent sentence using each. The exercise was meant to test our vocabulary, mastery of correct syntax and punctuation skills. In a way, it was more difficult to come up with a single interesting sentence than to expand our thoughts into an essay. Of course, the results were often odd, stilted and sometimes hilarious free standing expressions. Our teachers would occasionally pick out a particularly inspired and well crafted “sentence” for praise and read it out aloud to the entire class.
How to Write a Sentence is indeed an odd way to address good writing habits. I suppose a sentence being the building block of putting one's thoughts in order, individual sentences do matter to the writer's ability to persuade, move or charm. But can one be taught how to go about it? Reading wisely (and widely) definitely is the key to good writing but Stanley seems to recommend conscious imitation. A good idea? I may not be the most qualified to comment. I begin many of my sentences with "although" which Epstein tells us is a guarantee that the sentence is "DOA."

I forgot to add that in this age of Facebook and Twitter, a talent for a punchy sentence shouldn't be discounted. Perhaps the wily Fish knows his book has a market even if it won't teach anyone to write anything substantive.

Oh dear. If you're going to base the review on the title alone, then at least know that "how to..." is not an interrogative!
Ruchira, you're absolutely right about social media honing writing skills. Tone is all. And the most exquisitely brief and expressive emails I receive come from people in the business of writing and publishing.

Zara, Interrogatives include the so-called wh- words, what, when, where. How, of course, doesn't fit the pattern, but it is indeed an interrogative.

No, interrogatives introduce questions, as in "How do you write a sentence?" In this case "how" introduces a noun clause that is the direct object of an implied main clause such as "Learn how to write a sentence" or "This book will show you how to write a sentence." I guess the first thing to notice here is that "How to write a sentence" is not actually a sentence.

Interrogatives introduce questions. That doesn't mean that the class of words that introduce questions can't also function outside a question or, as you've pointed out, outside a sentence altogether. If "interrogatives" identifies that class of words--distinct from their common function--then what's the harm? I suppose I could have referred to "relatives," but that's a much broader class of words, or to "relative pronouns," but that leaves out "how" (even though "how" can introduce a relative nominal clause). It is true that these title components are not sentences. But it's also true that my post is not a review. As I pointed out, even if Fish had written the very best book about how to read and write sentences, I wouldn't have been interested in reading it. Furthermore, even if I had read it and considered reviweing it favorably, I wouldn't have done so, because there are already so many reviews out there better (not counting Epstein's) than anything I could produce.

I'm not gonna read this book for many reasons, the chief one being that I cannot risk sounding like Stanley Fish, and must avoid taking in matter that could effect such a shift. Zara and Dean know so much more grammar than I, who never learned it.

If the professor seriously thinks good writing starts with knowing how to write a good sentence, rather than with having something to say, I am astounded. But I guess sales would flatline if he had published _Writing Well Enough: Have a Beginning, a Middle, an End -- and a Point_.

I agree, not being able to write a sentence is a handicap to a person with something to say. But semi-literacy in motivated people is not terribly long lasting. How does Prof. Fish imagine the apathy that many teenagers feel about learning anything will be swept away by their embarking on sentence therapy? Caring is the antidote to apathy, not futile measures to flick up the old skill set.

Regarding teenagers and their apathy to learning, sentence therapy feels like a life sentence in prison. But I'm sure it will percolate into their unconscious even as they sit day-dreaming their day away in class.Then they grow up, grow old and write books like "HTWaS:aHTRO", without the texting lingo, or maybe in it, bemoaning all those young whippersnappers who use telepathy rather than consigning their thoughts to a more visible text form.

My formal education in sentences was confined to being made to read long passages, and then write my own. "This is an example of good writing," the teachers would say. The implication was that we should learn to think and write in a similar manner. I might not be able to diagram or parse a sentence, but am able to produce reasonably well-constructed, albeit too long ones. I know a good sentence when I see one, even without the assistance of Prof. Fish's musings camouflaged as a "How to" book. Which is why I still like even ungrammatical ones like the girl from Trinidad's line about her absent father. "He careless."

Sujatha: I was telling Elatia that I had to learn so much grammar (Bengali, English, Hindi, Sanskrit) in school that I am grateful for the near grammar-oblivion now. "I happy."

And "I careless", except when I'm tackling new languages (still have Bengali and Telugu on my list to cross out :)
Incidentally, the only languages for which I have learnt formal grammar and rules of sentence construction are Hindi and French. English, somehow, was a given in the ICSE system. The focus was more on practical usage and less on the nitty-gritty of grammatical construction.

I won't buy this book for many reason's either and all of you have pointed many reasons.

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