Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One (HarperCollins, 2011) seems to be positioned as a replacement for William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. Indeed, the second chapter is titled “Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White.” Fish quotes a newspaper’s praise of the (so-called) little book and then strikes:
“This excellent book, which should go off to college with every freshman, is recognized as the best book of its kind we have.” No doubt this praise is deserved if the person using the book already knows how to write; already knows, that is, what a sentence is. For then advice like “Do not join independent clauses with a comma” and “The number of the subject determines the number of the verb” will be genuinely helpful. But if you’re not quite sure what a sentence is (and isn’t) and you understand the words “number,” “subject,” and “verb” but couldn’t for the life of you explain how they go together or what an independent clause is, Strunk and White’s instructions will make no sense.No doubt Fish sees his book as more useful than theirs. But his claims here just aren’t accurate. Analysis and explanation do in fact accompany the rules that Fish quotes. So do examples, perhaps the best kind of explanation. This lovely sentence, for instance, is one of those illustrating problems with subject-verb agreement: “The bittersweet flavor of youth — its trials, its joys, its adventures, its challenges — are [is] not soon forgotten.” Fish, like Geoffrey Pullum, seems to forget that The Elements of Style is a book, not a list of commandments.
In short, Strunk and White’s advice assumes a level of knowledge and understanding only some of their readers will have attained; the vocabulary they confidently offer is itself in need of an analysis and explanation they do not provide.
As for Strunk and White’s assumptions about the reader’s knowledge of grammar: things are more complicated than Fish allows. It is the case that the 1959 Elements of Style assumes a rudimentary knowledge of grammar, as do the 1972 and 1979 editions. But the fourth edition of the book (2000) adds a glossary of grammatical terms (number, subject, verb, &c.) with simple definitions and examples. One might argue about its adequacy, and Fish might be amused that sentence is missing. But it’s not the case that The Elements of Style in its present form assumes a knowledge of grammatical terms. As I wrote in a post about another recent mischaracterization of Strunk and White’s advice, “There are good reasons to find fault with The Elements of Style, but one should be sure that it’s The Elements of Style one is criticizing — the thing itself, not some rumor.”
The stunning thing in the passage from Fish that I’ve quoted is its tacit acknowledgment that many students entering college do not know what subjects and verbs and independent clauses and sentences are. But that’s a subject for another post.
[Having read excerpts from How to Write a Sentence via Amazon, I suspect that Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style (Graphics Press, 2006), which collects more than a thousand sentences from twentieth and twenty-first century writers, is a more capacious and useful guide to the art of the sentence. Fish begins with (and acknowledges) the beautiful sentence that begins Tufte’s book, from Anthony Burgess’s Enderby Outside (1968): “And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.”]
Here’s my review of How to Write a Sentence.
Battling The Elements
The Elements of Style, one more time
Pullum on Strunk and White