Thursday, February 3, 2011

Fish on Strunk and White

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.

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.
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.

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.”]

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Here’s my review of How to Write a Sentence.

Related posts
Battling The Elements
The Elements of Style, one more time
Pullum on Strunk and White

comments: 8

Elaine Fine said...

If elementary school and middle school English teachers were given a mandate to spend fifteen minutes a day discussing the mechanics of writing (diagramming one or two sentences), high school students would be ready to benefit from The Elements of Style. Or perhaps they wouldn't even need it.

Other Elaine said...

In 8th grade (considered 'subfreshman' year in HS in DeKalb County, GA) we diagrammed sentences, conjugated verbs, AND were required to learn 20 words per week from Barron's _How to Prepare for the College Board Examinations_ (if I'm recalling the Sixties title correctly.)We studied The Common Errors;('tautology' was the last one on the list.) Of course, that was back in the days of unabashed 'tracking.' It was superb preparation for Strunk and White in 12th grade. (And that was just the composition side of things; the literature component was also stringent.) Nowadays, I might question if most elementary and middle school teachers could teach diagramming at all. At the last place I worked before retiring, my supervisor was given to sentences such as, "Her and her husband came in to see me yesterday." Oh, yeah.....Despair.

TRH said...

Ditto what Elaine said.

RE: Fish's book, (which I just finished reading), I didn't take his criticisms of Strunk & White as severely as you did, but rather as a difference in emphasis.
Fish, in his book, wants students to understand the work sentences do as organic 'wholes' - while also understanding (in broad terms) the anatomy of the sentence. He also wants students to learn that there are different species of sentences for different purposes.
Fish's book would be _very useful_ for students (& I have a few of them) who struggle with syntax. I may well use his book in my next 'Writing emphasis' course.
But Fish's book is also quite good because he broadens out this view and reminds us of the innumerable ways that sentences can be made to work, the jobs we can use them to do. He is excellent in helping the reader to see how beautiful sentences can be (& why we think some sentences are beautiful).
Last, he actually helps the reader see why & how the mechanics of the sentence relate to really deep questions regarding the relationship between language and reality (see here esp. chapt. 10 in Fish's book). On this topic he rings a note first struck in his brilliant analysis of Milton's _Paradise Lost_ ( _Surprised by Sin_, 1967).
I like Strunk & White a lot, and find it useful still; I see Fish's new book as a wonderful compliment to Strunk & White, and one that could be both helpful and thought-provoking for students.

TRH said...

P.S. Also, RE: Elaine's comment, Fish would agree with you; indeed, he extensively quotes Gertrude Stein on the almost passionate joys generated in her by the action of diagramming a sentence.

Other Elaine said...

Maybe we are all just suggesting strongly that 'dumbing down' the curriculum has just.....not served us well.

Michael Leddy said...

Timothy, I thought I saw traces of Fish’s work on Renaissance prose too. What bothers me in the passage I’ve quoted is the representation of The Elements as arcane and lacking in explanation. The claim that the book is useful only to a reader who already knows what to do (say, “Omit needless words”) just isn’t accurate. I want to see How to Write a Sentence in person (as it were) — I need to decide whether to use it and/or Tufte’s book in a class.

I second (or third or fourth) what everyone else has said about the teaching of writing. I like Gertrude Stein’s definition of a sentence: “A sentence is an interval in which there is a finally forward and back.”

Michael Leddy said...

If anyone’s wondering, I don’t use The Elements of Style in my teaching. I prefer Michael Harvey’s The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing.

Matt Thomas said...

Like shooting fish in a barrel.