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January 27, 2011

Can You Write A Good Sentence?

You might think writing a sentence is easy. In a way, of course, it is. What could be simpler than...

...putting thoughts down for others to read?

But constructing a solid, memorable sentence is far harder than it looks.

Stanley Fish has written a book on the subtleties of putting together and reading sentences. You'd think there would be a few solid and predictable rules - and there are a few - but Mr Fish insists that a few good examples are far better than any number of rules.

Consider this statement from a friend of mine. In describing the film Avatar he wrote; "Avatar is Fern Gully for grown-ups".

In just six words, my friend sums up many layers of similarities between a popular animated children's film from the
early 1990s. This short sentence presumes a level of knowledge and draws on areas of comparison and contrast between, at least on the face of it, two very different films.

But there is more. If you say this simple sentence, you will notice the strong, repetitive "F" and "G" sounds in "Fern Gully for grown-ups". This sentence is full of meaning but it also flows easily when we say it.

A good sentence should be easy to say, easy to memorize and should hold far more than just the sum of the words it holds.

Stanley Fish knows a lot about writing sentences. He is currently a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, in Miami. He has previously held faculty positions at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke University and the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author of 13 books, including “Save the World On Your Own Time" and “The Fugitive in Flight,” a study of the 1960s TV drama.

He also reviews pop culture including movies and President Obama's recent State of the Union speech for the New York Times. You can see his columns here - http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/stanley-fish/.

You can see a review of his book from SLATE here - http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/browbeat/archive/2011/01/24/stanley-fish-s-top-five-sentences.aspx.

You can see the official review from Harper-Collins here - http://www.harpercollins.com/books/How-Write-Sentence-Stanley-Fish/?isbn=9780061840548.

Send us any links or other resources that you think any teachers, students or even just normal people might find interesting or useful. Let us all know about words that make you crazy, aspects of language and expression you find challenging, and be sure to let us know what it is about English and language learning that you find confounding, infuriating or endlessly intriguing.

Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

My best to you as you make your way through this intriguing , constantly shifting linguistic landscape.


About the author of this entry:

Morf has a B.A.from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and an MAT (Master's in Teaching English) from the University of Washington (Seattle). Morf is currently a radio host (http://www.tacoma.fm/) and a newspaper columnist http://www.thenewstribune.com/opinion/columnists/morf_morford/ and would love to do either one of those somewhere else in the world later this year.

Posted by mmorf at January 27, 2011 10:44 PM


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