Suspended sentences

March 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. Stanley Fish; $22.99 cloth 978-0-06-184054-8, 166 pp., Harper.

One of my favourite English-language sentences appears in Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct. The sentence, which was created by Pinker’s student, Annie Senghas, is a syntactical marvel, at first utterly confounding, but perfectly structured and absolutely, 100% grammatically correct. The sentence reads as follows:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

On a first (and even second, third, or fourth) reading, that sentence seems like complete gibberish, a nonsense mantra repeating a single word eight times in succession. Only when one takes a step back and considers the various parts of speech the word “buffalo” can stand in for does the sentence’s meaning begin to come clear. Consider that “buffalo” can be a noun, the name of a city, or a verb. Then consider that the difficulty in Senghas’s sentence arises from the elision of articles and conjunctions that might serve as guides in breaking the sentence down into its syntactical components. Pinker explains it this way:

American bison are called buffalo. A kind of bison that comes from Buffalo, New York, could be called a Buffalo buffalo. Recall that there is a verb to buffalo that means “to overwhelm, to intimidate.” Imagine that New York State bison intimidate one another: (The) Buffalo buffalo (that) Buffalo buffalo (often) buffalo (in turn) buffalo (other) Buffalo buffalo.

Put that way, the sentence makes perfect sense, but is a lot less interesting. Senghas’s unadulterated string of words is a thing of beauty, a sentence to elicit joy and wonder in those for whom language and its structures are endlessly fascinating.

This category should include all writers, since writers employ sentences the way carpenters employ cords of wood. It never ceases to amaze me when a writer confesses to an indifference toward the building blocks of language: “Oh, I don’t really pay attention to the details of my sentences: I’m a big-picture person. I let my editor handle the small stuff.” Writers of this stripe, with their heads in the clouds, always pondering the grand questions of life without giving a second thought to how those questions get expressed in prose, strike me as dilettantes at best, for they lack a basic understanding of their craft.

This is what Annie Dillard was getting at in an anecdote in her book The Writing Life:

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”

“Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know. … Do you like sentences?”

The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I liked the smell of paint.”

Stanley Fish makes reference to Dillard’s anecdote at the opening of his slim new volume, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. Fish is a self-described member of “the tribe of sentence watchers” – an aficionado and devotee of the pleasure a well-crafted sentence can offer, and a lover of the various ways in which good sentences can convey information, emotion, and meaning. He focuses on sentences rather than words because individual words set alongside one another are meaningless until they are organized into a rational and comprehensible sequence. The organizational ability of sentences, Fish avers, contains their promise and potential:

[Sentences] promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world. That is what language does: organize the world into manageable, and in some sense artificial, units that can then be inhabited and manipulated. If you can write a sentence in which actors, actions, and objects are related to one another in time, space, mood, desires, fears, causes, and effects, and if your specification of those relationships is delineated with a precision that communicates itself to your intended reader, you can, by extrapolation and expansion, write anything: a paragraph, an argument, an essay, a treatise, a novel.

This is a very functional assessment of what sentences do, focusing on logic, comprehensibility, and communicative efficacy rather than aesthetic or linguistic pleasure. Fish might take great joy in Senghas’s buffalo sentence, but it is not the kind of thing he is interested in here, being on one level a linguistic stunt: the delight it offers will likely be greater to linguists and grammarians than a general reader. By contrast, Fish’s purpose in this volume is practical and utilitarian: to illustrate the building blocks of sentences in such a way that readers will be able to break them down into their component parts and replicate them in their own writing.

To this end, Fish includes an analysis of hypotactic sentences (those composed by subordinating clauses and phrases) and paratactic sentences (those composed by an accretion of clauses joined by “and,” “but,” or other co-ordinating conjunctions). These he calls (rather inelegantly) the “subordinating style” and the “additive style,” and he provides examples of each for the purpose of demonstrating how, by copying the way each sentence is constructed, writers can achieve similar effects. Sentence length, Fish suggests, is immaterial: once a writer has mastered the building blocks, it is simply a matter of adding clauses to create lengthier, more complex sentences.

Fish suggests analyzing form in the absence of content, for it is the form of a sentence that determines its utility; the content can be anything at all. “It doesn’t matter what the sentences you practice with say; it doesn’t matter what their content is,” Fish writes. “In fact, the less interesting the sentences are in their own right the more useful they are as vehicles of instruction, because, as you work with them, you will not be tempted to focus on their content and you will be able to pay attention to the structural relationships that make content – any content – possible.” As a result, the examples Fish chooses (and they are plentiful) are exploited for their usefulness as teaching tools rather than their aesthetic interest. In illustrating the subordinating style, for example, Fish employs what he admits is a “modest” example from Henry James’s short story “The Real Thing”:

When the porter’s wife (she used to answer the house-bell), announced “A gentleman – with a lady, sir,” I had, as I often had in those days, for the wish was father to the thought, an immediate vision of sirens.

Fish points out the way the event described in this sentence is couched in layers of perception, how the bare bones of the sentence – subject, verb, object – are draped with subordinating clauses that position the event in time and reflect on their importance to the sentence’s abiding consciousness (the subject, or “I,” of the sentence). Stripped of its finery, the sentence reads, “I had a vision.” Everything else, Fish demonstrates, serves to position this vision in time (it is “an immediate vision” that occurs to the speaker after the porter’s wife makes her announcement), and to provide this vision with “a history and a pedigree.”

These are all formal considerations that have nothing to do with the content of the sentence; likewise, they have little to do with the grammar of the sentence. Early on in his book, Fish disavows grammatical concerns on the basis that this kind of knowledge, “divorced from what it is supposed to be knowledge of, yields only the illusion of understanding.” It is possible, Fish supposes, to rhyme off the eight parts of speech (noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, and interjection) without an understanding of what function these parts of speech play in a sentence. He goes on to suggest that a guide such as Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style is not terribly helpful because it assumes a level of technical knowledge that not all its readers will possess.

This repudiation of technical matters is an extension of the whole language approach to literacy, which assumes that comprehension will arise organically, as if by osmosis. But Fish ignores the havoc that ignorance of such technical concerns can wreak on even a simple sentence. It is all well and good to be able to differentiate hypotaxis from parataxis, but unless a certain level of technical understanding has been reached, a reader (to say nothing of a writer) will be unable to comprehend the difference between a sentence that reads “Aim for the heart, surgeons” and one that reads “Aim for the heart surgeons.” Simply plugging clauses into a sentence with no regard for how they interact with one another is a recipe for disaster, as a pair of sentences from Douglas Coupland’s novel JPod attest: “One of JPod’s quirks is an air intake duct in front of which you can puff away on anything. Hell, you could let off an Exocet missile, and it’d suck everything up and away in a jiffy.” The “it” in the second sentence is presumably meant to refer to the air intake duct, although the way the sentence is constructed, it actually refers to the Exocet missile.

This brings up another issue that Fish elides in his book: sentences may be individual linguistic marvels, but they only accrue meaning in combination. Analyzing the way first sentences “lean forward” toward the text they are introducing is one thing, but doing so in isolation can lead to problems. For example, Fish points to the “quiet yet pregnant first sentence” from Agatha Christie’s novel Nemesis:

In the afternoon it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper.

“This sentence seems simple,” Fish writes, “but in fact it communicates a surprising amount of information (and more) in its brief space.” One of the things it communicates, Fish would have us believe, is “that Jane Marple will find something in her second newspaper of the day and that, whatever it is, she will follow through on it.” This is true only if one has read on in Christie’s novel. The opening sentence on its own suggests nothing of the sort. Imagine a second sentence that read, “On this particular afternoon, however, her custom was cut short by a figure creeping up behind her and burying an axe in her head.” It would be safe to say that such a sentence would preclude the notion that Miss Marple would proceed to find something in the paper and act on it. Sentences, even great ones, do not exist in a vacuum.

“Do you think I could be a writer?” the university student asks in Dillard’s anecdote. “Do you like sentences?” the writer replies. Liking sentences is essential, but it isn’t sufficient, as Fish’s small book demonstrates. Early on, Fish compares great sentences to sports highlights: “you know, the five greatest dunks, or the ten greatest catches, or the fifteen greatest touchdown runbacks.” On one level, How to Write a Sentence reads like a literary highlight reel. Football coaches will spend hours drilling their players on individual plays and every so often one of them results in a spectacular buttonhook or forward pass. But in the end, it’s a series of plays in combination that determines who wins the game.

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