Friday, August 10, 2012

Want to learn how to write a sentence? (Who doesn’t?)

An entire book dedicated to learning how to write a sentence? A book that is so absorbing you lose yourself in it? A meaningful book about an important subject that does not read like a text book? I would never have thought it possible. But How to Write A Sentence: And How to Read One is just such a book.

Literary critic and New York Times columnist Stanley Fish, the author of this incomparable work, writes in the opening chapter that he belongs to the tribe of sentence watchers: "Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines. I appreciate fine sentences."

And what fine sentences we get in Fish's book. Here's one from a legendary movie, The Magnificent Seven:

If God didn't want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep. (Bandit leader Eli Wallach explaining why he isn't bothered much by the hardships suffered by the peasant-farmers whose food and supplies he plunders.)

To enable us to appreciate this sentence, Fish provides an artful analysis:

The sentence is snapped off, almost like the flick of a whip; it has the form of proverbial wisdom... and the air of finality and certainty it aspires to is clinched by the parallelism of clauses that also feature the patterned repetition of consonants and vowels: "didn't want" and "would not have", "sheared" and "sheep". We know that "sheep" is coming because of "sheared" and when it arrives it seems inevitable and, and at least from one perspective, just. Not bad for a bandit.

And not bad for a certain Mr Fish either! Now that we know why that sentence works, we can get down to crafting a few like that, can't we?

Many short sentences from many popular books are analysed in How to Write A Sentence. But there are some long ones, too, including this famous 310-word sentence from Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963):

...when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. 

And here's Fish explaining exactly why King's sentence is such a majestic work of art:

King is replying to the question (sometimes asked by his colleagues in the movement) “Why don’t you wait a while and hold back on the sit-ins and marches?” The answer is at once withheld and given. It is formally withheld by the succession of “when” clauses (the technical name is anaphora) that offer themselves as preliminary to the direct assertion but are the direct assertion; each “when” clause is presented as a piece of the answer, but is in itself fully sufficient as an answer. “Here is the reason we can’t wait,” each says, but if that isn’t enough, here is another and another.

As the huge dependent clause (a clause that does not stand alone as a complete sentence) grows and grows, the independent clause
— the sentence’s supposedly main assertion — becomes less and less necessary.

Meanwhile, there is an incredible amount of cross-referencing and rhetorical counterpointing going on among the clauses as they advance inexorably toward the waiting, and foreknown, conclusion.

A full explication of these inter-clause effects would require an essay. It would include an analysis of the rhyming pattern of “will”, “whim”, and “kill”, which links and bookends the pairs “mothers and fathers”, sisters and brothers”, and “brothers and sisters”.

It would include an analysis of the interplay between inner and outer that begins with the phrase “ominous clouds of inferiority”, continues with “her little mental sky”, and reaches a climax with King’s acknowledgment of “inner fears” that at once reflect and war with “outer resentments”.

It would include an analysis of the progression from “nigger” to “boy” to “John” in counterpoint with the withheld honorific “Mrs.” and ending with the word “Negro”, which does not quite reclaim the dignity history has taken from it.

But it is enough to note the main effect: the building of intolerable pressure as the succession of “when” clauses details the layered humiliation every black man, woman, and child suffers, and then the spectacularly understated, even quite, anticlimactic conclusion “then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait”.

It is a tremendous rhetorical achievement, a sentence for the ages, but again you can learn how to imitate it, if not to match it. Pick any topic, even a trivial one, say, getting up in the morning in the face of all the reasons not to: “When you’ve stayed up all night watching Rocky for the twentieth time, when the temperature is below freezing, and you’re warm underneath the blanket, when the day promises only drudgery and humiliation, when the conclusion that your life has been for naught and no one will miss you seems self-evident, when everyone you have ever cared for is either dead or angry with you, when the only pleasure you can anticipate is a cup of coffee you can barely afford, when the thought of one more day doing something you absolutely hate is unbearable, then you remind yourself of what Scarlett O’Hara said: ‘Tomorrow is another day.’ ”

If writing is what you do at work or if writing is what you love, you will want to get hold of a copy of How to Write A Sentence now. And I mean now.
  • Want to know how Stanley Fish's book stacks up against that enduring guide to writing, The Elements of Style? Check out this Financial Times feature: "The art of good writing".
There is much to learn from Stanley Fishs approach

An appreciation of How to Write A Sentence: And How to Read One by Dr. Pradeep Banerjee, who teaches economics and management at Commits:

Open a book and there they are. Arranged in sequence, they are neatly positioned and waiting to be read. These are sentences. They come with a power of their own, they weave a magic that the reader willingly submits to and they transport the reader to a world that in turn he relates to with gusto, with a feel, and with an animated attachment to. The reader relates to sentences in a manner that is less seen when relating to other inanimate things and aspects. Think about them, and you are reminded of the gossamer softness of an early spring morning that was seen and felt many years ago. Think of them, and the wildness of a Russian monk comes and hits you with a force of things that have gone amok. Think about them and the speed of the horses carrying the rider across the great and endless steppes comes along vividly. They are capable of creating the loneliness, the angst, the sharp twang of separation, the beauty of a still night, the desperation that a gambler feels when he knows that he is trading with the devil, and a host of all these. Sentences have a quality of their own.

And then there is the writer who writes these sentences. He is a step away, missing from the text that he writes. The text in most cases is not about him. He has created the wherewithal, the magic, the severity, the depths, the anxious moments, the longing and he has not drawn attention to himself. The sentences have a life of their own, and away from the writer. Such is the approach the writer of sentences brings along. Can, then, one learn to write sentences of the type that is under reference; sentences that come with a potential of going way beyond standing up and being counted? Yes, indeed that can be is the message. Try it, and see how well you shape up. There is a way forward, and Professor Stanley Fish offers you a book to do just that. How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One is that book.

The professor is candid about his approach; he appreciates ‘fine sentences’. He writes on why this is so, and he also writes as to what the reader can do to write fine sentences in turn. His writing shows that he is a connoisseur, and there is much to learn from his writing. And Ramesh in his write-up shows that he is himself an aficionado of the same art.