Friday, May 13, 2011


As Phyllis pointed out, writers love words. They are the madeleines, the bon-bons, the dark chocolate of writing. But do writers love sentences? Sure we do, but I suspect at times it’s a love-hate relationship. Sentences are trickier than words, even devilish at times. Nothing reveals a writer’s weaknesses more quickly than the sentence. But a fine sentence is a lovely thing; many a writer has claimed a single one as a good day’s work.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been reading How to Write a Sentence, by Stanley Fish. Fish is an opinionated man and doesn’t mind beginning his book by taking issue with that writing classic, The Elements of Style.

Here’s Fish’s definition of a sentence: “A sentence is a structure of logical relationships.”

Those “logical relationships” are key, he says. Each word and phrase in a good sentence has a role to play that is defined by its relationship to the other parts. Fish doesn’t think memorizing the parts of speech and being able to identify them has much value to a writer. Instead, he suggests the writer “Scrutinize every part of your sentence and ask, ‘What does it go with?’ or ‘What does it support?’ or ‘What information does it give about some other part?’ or ‘What is it referring to?’—all variations of the master question, ‘How does it fit into the sentence’s logical structure?’”

How to Write a Sentence is a short book but not a quick read; however, it is filled with lovely sentences.


  1. How crazy, this week I have been thumping my head over my strings of awful sentences. Your recommendation showed up just in time!

    Probably would help if I read E.B. White again the way I did in college. I wrote decent sentences back then, she added wistfully.

  2. Reminds me of Robert Creeley's line. "Oh yes, the sentence. That's what we call it when we put someone in jail."

  3. Great post.
    Here's Robert Frost on sentences:
    "A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung. You may string words together without a sentence-sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothes line between two trees, but –it is bad for the clothes."

  4. Ha! I like Frost better. Good to know that not all poets are crabby about sentences.