This. Is. A. Sentence. And so is this. As is anything we might cram between a majuscule, or a capital letter, and a period. Those innovations—capitalization, punctuation—were products of Carolingian manuscripture: the handwriting that appeared in the monasteries during the reign of Charlemagne. Before that, “the sentence” wasn’t a sentence at all but rather run-on stream-of-consciousness without comprehensible division—though even as late as Gutenberg, who appropriated the Gothic’s minim ligatures, individual letters could be found ornamentally connected, everythingpiledtogether.
The history of breaking prose into comprehensible units is much older than Charlemagne, however—as old, surely, as the breaking of bread. Like early medieval monks, antiquity’s readers mentally inserted pauses into writing based on meaning, not style. The Greek of the New Testament and the Hebrew of the Old Testament were both unpunctuated, and, when they were read aloud—and they were often read aloud—the cantor himself supplied the syntax. The sentence, then, might be allied to biology—related to our attention (how much information can be assimilated at once); related to our breath (how much can be said with one mouth and two lungs).
The reader interested in the origins of the sentence will find none of this information in Stanley Fish’s companionable new book, however, which is concerned with the English-language practice of the sentence from, say, the 17th to the 20th centuries—constituting, in the history of the sentence, a mere clause.
Mr. Fish—known for his frequent and catholic contributions to the opinion pages of The New York Times—here reverts to his day job as a literature professor (he’s also a legal scholar), offering the lay reader and lay writer a lesson on what makes a sentence a sentence. His approach is genially experiential—a lifelong reader’s engagement whose amatory enthusiasm is an attempt to overthrow Strunk & White’s infamous insistences on grammar by rote. Forget a patient exposition of language’s Ten Commandments—the eight parts of speech: noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, interjection—Mr. Fish instead opts for happy partlessness, a celebration of the whole. “The conclusion to be drawn, however,” he writes, “is not that focusing on forms is irrelevant to the act of composing, but that the focus one finds in the grammar books is on the wrong forms, on forms detached from the underlying (or overarching) form that must be in place before any technical terms can be meaningful and alive.”
The Elements of Style, first published in 1918 by William Strunk Jr. and revised in 1959 by his student E.B. White, was the last word in prescriptive sentence making; Mr. Fish, writing a century later, is an avowed describer. His apostasy—his refusal to set rules for writing apart from those momentarily intuited by the reading of writing—is representative of a fundamental rift in academe: In elementary terms, a rift between Theory—which held sway for centuries, from Lowth’s Oxford primer to contemporary English departments—and Practice, which is a recent priority, fostered in M.F.A. programs.
To be exact, Theory’s prescriptive regime is a relic, however still functional, of the 17th century—not coincidentally the earliest century from which Mr. Fish has selected sentences to expound upon and admire. Originally, grammar was supposed to explain how sentences are made by rendering each aspect of the sentence a separate unit of study: subject, predicate, direct object, etc. These units made clauses; clauses made sentences; sentences made paragraphs; paragraphs made books and also reviews of books about How to Write a Sentence—the 17th century believed in these types of ideal organization. It was the era of schema and hierarchy, of taxonomy, the list; of incipient book cataloging in libraries, and the invention of “philosophical languages,” which aspired to provide new verbiage in a strict systemization: All words that pertained to “fire,” for instance, including “flame,” and “heat,” would share the same root.
Here’s a grammarian’s diagrammatic account of historical grammar: In the 18th century—century of the encyclopedia and dictionary—grammar as it was daily deployed by writers and speakers became a unique discipline of philology, or linguistics; and in the 19th century that descriptive science, in its global iteration, comparative linguistics, sought to identify a common derivation for all utterance, irrespective of tongue. By the turn of the last century, with morphology and phonology emerging as areas of study, writers themselves, once the subjects of analysis, were analytically outclassed. With theories of language attuned to linguistic practices other than those evinced in fiction and poetry, actual practicing writers were relegated again to the most basic prescription, and a defense of deviation on aesthetic grounds—taste being the key determinant in whether a particular usage was “right” or “wrong.” Mr. Fish is heir to that tradition, in artistic terms a friend to beauty; in terms of the culture wars a relativist.
It’s Mr. Fish’s diffidence toward prescription that’s refreshing and laudable, though his book, in its How-To guise (assuredly a publisher’s gambit), is finally unhelpful. Its major flaw in this regard is that its author is as vocal a fan as he is an expert, and a fan tends to assert, not explain. When Fish ignores first principles to prize the “form that must be in place before any technical terms can be meaningful and alive,” it is difficult to know what form he’s referring to without referring to the sentences he quotes—which ultimately might be this book’s meek objective, to get the reader reading writers more lasting than the one whose name is on the cover.
And so let’s requote—this sentence by Milton from 1642, where the poet, in Mr. Fish’s words, “rejects the praise of his writing style offered by an adversary and pushes away artfulness in a sentence that could hardly be more artful”:
“For me, readers, although I cannot say that I am utterly untrained in those rules which best rhetoricians have given, or unacquainted with those examples which the prime authors of eloquence have written in any learned tongue, yet true eloquence I find to be none but the serious and hearty love of truth, and that whose mind so ever is fully possessed with a fervent desire to know good things and with the dearest charity to infuse the knowledge of them into others, when such a man would speak, his words (by what I can express) like so many nimble and airy servitors, trip about him at command, and in well ordered files, as he would wish, fall aptly in their own places.”
Mr. Fish skillfully relates this sentiment to another sentence, by Walter Pater from 1873, which “enacts what it describes”:
“To such a tremulous wisp constantly reforming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense of it, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our lives fines itself down.”
Milton believed that what was true found its own perfect expression, while Pater, less interested in absolutes and more in subjective judgment, held that reality was its own best editor—and that if an experience were truly real it would come of its own, refined to be inextricable with its communicative means. Both, of course, are apt metaphors for Fish’s book. How to Write is nothing more than the sum of its truths, and thos
e truths are nothing more than the sum of their sentences: precisian, pellucid.
Mr. Cohen’s most recent novel is Witz.