For a student who never got a grade better than a D- in an English class, either in high school or college, to critique a world-famous university professor’s book about English usage, a professor who was probably the darling A++ student of his university professors, is preposterous. You might choose another more fitting epithet; there are many. Actually, my poor performance isn’t quite as bad as I imply in that opening sentence, because my instructors always read my essays to the class, misspellings and colloquial cutities and all. Why? Because they were more interesting than anyone else’s essays.
I always got bad grades because of my bad attitude. And what was that, you might in all legitimacy ask? I didn’t respect authority. It wasn’t that I didn’t obey whatever laws were imposed upon the plebes, including me; it was just that I passed it off as so much stupid nonsense that needed to be endured to get by. Somehow, those in authority hate that attitude even more than stupid ignorance or open rebellion, which they can discipline with a correction or a direct punishment.
Open ridicule in the form of double entendre was my forte. These jibes always had a legitimate meaning, so they couldn’t be challenged by their victim, even though the whole classroom would be snickering. But such galling from an arrogant teenage prick is just plain difficult to cope with, until final grade day. Then the inevitably insulting grade, a D-. Generally they couldn’t fail me because I turned in all the assignments and passed all the written tests, but I had a bad attitude so I should be punished to the full extent that a twit can punish their betters.
I have aged more than a half a century since my teenage years, and have been punished innumerable times for my bad attitudes, but as I often say to my friends, “I’m a slow learner.” Perhaps I like Steven Colbert so much because he has been able to bring off those things which I failed so miserably to do. What little I know of the early life of Colbert and another super successful word-man, the US Chief Justice John G. Roberts, is that they planned out their strategy and path to success by the time they were eleven years old. Of course they had the ability, but then they honed that and cultivated those people and the knowledge they needed. Probably one person in a thousand has their native ability, but only one in seven billion has risen to their place in the sun, and that was because of their pre-planning and dedication. To a ten year old, thinking about his life ahead and what he wants to do, I would suggest – think about your life ahead and what you need to do to get there.
The author of How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One – Stanley Fish hasn’t risen to the heights of the wordsmiths Colbert or Roberts but his wordy success has been spectacular, with many award-winning books and professional kudos. My true love read his book to me, over several evenings, as a bedtime story. It was enjoyable enough, what I remember of it, but it was a bit soporific, and I slept though major chunks of it.
Perhaps the best part of the book, for a serious writer, which I most definitely am not, were the student exercises based on famous writers’ sentences. Such classic sentences as, It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, are picked apart and then rewritten with alternate words inserted, in paint-a-picture style, so the student can learn to clone the masters. Fish claims that there are only a few critical styles which must be learned by rote and then the practitioner of this verbal gymnastic art can insert his own content into the boxes ad infinitum, because there is no limit on content. This is a reversal on the usual Form follows function bon mot of most artistic pursuits. Someone said, the opposite of a great idea is also a great idea, but it might be asked What is the opposite of a stupid idea? I don’t know, but then my first grade teacher told me that any question was a good question, but I have learned to question that suggestion.
How to Write a Sentence is a good read for writers and readers alike – it perks one up to official–art.