the contextual life

thoughts without borders

books for readers :: how to write a sentence / stanley fish

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Chapter 1
Why Sentences?

In her book The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” “ ‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?’ ” The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that “if he liked sentences he could begin,” and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. “I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ‘I like the smell of paint.’ ” The point, made implicitly (Dillard does not belabor it), is that you don’t begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or a masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other.

But wouldn’t the equivalent of paint be words rather than sentences? Actually, no, because while you can brush or even drip paint on a canvas and make something interesting happen, just piling up words, one after the other, won’t do much of anything until something else has been added. That something is named quite precisely by Anthony Burgess in this sentence from his novel 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.

Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere. Once the words are nestled in the places “ordained” for them—”ordained” is a wonderful word that points to the inexorable logic of syntactic structures—they are tied by ligatures of relationships to one another. They are subjects or objects or actions or descriptives or indications of manner, and as such they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate, admire, reject, or refine. . . .

. . . Here is Dillard again: “When you write you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.” And when you come to the end of the path, you have a sentence.

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One / Stanley Fish / ©2011

::[vocab]::

syntax: the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses)
syntactical: of, relating to, or according to the rules of syntax or syntactics
inexorable: not to be persuaded, moved, or stopped
syntactic structures: good definition not found
ligature: a) a printed or written character (as æ or ƒƒ) consisting of two or more letters or characters joined together;
b) something that is used to bind
subject: a) one that is acted on; b) an individual whose reactions or responses are studied
object: a) a noun or noun equivalent (as a pronoun, gerund, or clause) denoting the goal or result of the action of a verb;
b) the goal or end of an effort or activity
actions: things done
descriptives: serving to describe
indications: serving to point out
::[bonus]::
stanley fish on ABC radio national’s the book show
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Written by Gabrielle

March 27, 2011 at 10:51 am

Posted in books

Tagged with , , , , ,

One Response

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