Brow Beat

Stanley Fish’s Top Five Sentences—Now with Reader Contest!

In his newbook, Howto Write a Sentence and How to Read One , literary critic, legalscholar, and New YorkTimes online columnist StanleyFish offers readers a guided tour through some of the most beautiful, arrestingsentences in the English language. As an introduction to both sentence craftand sentence appreciation, it is— innovelist Adam Haslett’s words —”both deeper and more democratic” thanStrunk & White’s Elementsof Style , celebrating everything from brief epigrams to twisty,rambling digressions.

Fish describes how he carries sentences with him “as others might carry aprecious gem or a fine Swiss watch.” Accordingly, Brow Beat asked Professor Fish for some ofhis favorite accoutrements, and he offered five from across threecenturies:

John Bunyan (from ThePilgrim’s Progress , 1678): “Now he had not run far from his owndoor, but his wife and children perceiving it, began crying after him to return,but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life! Life!eternal life.”

In this sentence, Bunyan makes us feelthe cost paid by someone (anyone) who turns his back on the human ties thatbind and surrenders to the pull of a glory he cannot even see.  

JonathanSwift (from ATale of a Tub , 1704):  “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and youwill hardly believe how  much it altered her appearance for the worse.” 

Here, Swift forces us into a momentaryfellowship (“you will hardly believe”) with a moral blindness we must finallyreject.

Walter Pater (from TheRenaissance , 1873): “To such a tremulous wisp constantly re-formingitself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense in it, a relicmore or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our lives finesitself down.”

The prose enacts Pater’s lesson,teasing us repeatedly with the promise of clarity and stability ofperception before depositing us on a last word (“down”) that points tofurther dissolution and fragmentation.

Ford Madox Ford (from TheGood Soldier , 1915): “And I shall go on talking in a low voicewhile the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of windpolishes the bright stars.”

In this sentence, the personal voice ofthe narrator is absorbed by the sea sounds (a deliberate pun) that began asbackground and end by taking over the scene of writing.

Gertrude Stein (from Lecturesin America , 1935): “When I first began writing I felt that writingshould go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first beganwriting I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go onand if writing should go on what had commas and semi-colons to do with it whathad commas to do with it what had periods to do with it what had smallletters and capitals to do with writing going on which was at the time the mostprofound need I had in connection with writing.”   

Stein manages to defeat linear timeby a circular pattern of repetition that arrests movement even as itmoves forward.


Addendum: Reader contest! What’s your favorite sentence in the history of English? Post it in the comment thread—along with your analysis of what makes the sentence work so well—by midnight E.S.T. on Thursday. Stanley Fish will pick the best answer from the bunch, and we’ll announce the winner here on the blog.