English Honey

Good words are a honeycomb,
And their sweetness is a healing of the soul

Proverbs 16:22

I’m beginning to get the impression that the sentence is making a comeback. What do you think? Do you see evidence too?

Here are two pieces I’ve found:

The Teaching Company released a program about two years ago called Building Great Sentences that is taught by Professor Brooks Landon from the University of Iowa. In it, he makes the case for knowing and practicing the forms of sentences from the simple to the complex.

It’s a sound and practical program and aligns at many levels with what we believe here at CiRCE. He probably isn’t the Grammatical Realist that I am (meaning that grammar arises not only from conventions or even thoughts but from the nature of reality itself), but he treats form with great respect and loves long sentences. I highly recommend it.

The second evidence is a stimulating and insightful new book by Stanley Fish, one of the most insightful and thoughtful writers on writing you’ll find. This is the Stanley Fish who reviewed Leigh Bortins The Core for a New York Times article on Classical Education.

It’s called How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One and in it Dr. Fish celebrates “sentences that take your breath away.”

Now, anybody who loves sentences can appreciate anybody else whose breath can be taken away by a sentence. But, really, aren’t we all like that. Watch teenagers when they come across a great line in a song. It is a human pleasure to delight in language, and it is a pleasure we ought to cultivate by giving humans language in which to delight.

He makes another point we’re trying to get across through The Lost Tools of Writing and that is that thought requires form to be thought. Indeed, the form of our thought often precedes the thought itself. Here’s a simple way to understand that idea.

If I think about my dog, Winkie, and don’t have a form for my thought to fill, my thought will wander all over or, more likely, not go anywhere to speak of at all. You can see this more easily in writing than in internal thoughts, but I’m convinced there’s a parallel. If I am given a sentence form such as subject-verb-direct object, then I will think a thought to fill that form.

Example: Winkie fetches sticks.

If my sentence form were Subject-verb, then my thought would fill that form.

Example: Winkie eliminates.

Now if I add a prepositional phrase I am required to push my thought a little further to fill the new form.

Examples: Winkie fetches sticks in the back yard, or
Winkie eliminates in the back yard.

If I had stuck with the Subject-verb-direct object pattern, my second thought would have filled out to Winkie eliminates the back yard.

That’s an amusing sentence, but the amusement never would have happened if I had not been playing around with the FORMS of the sentences.

This has everything to do with teaching young people to write. What they need to learn as much as anything else is sentence forms that compel them to flesh out their thoughts. Thoughts without form are not thought. They are hinted at or felt, but they are not thought. And thoughts that are not thought, cannot be communicated.

On page 30, Mr. Fish expresses the importance of form, while subtly correcting a fatal mistake in modern language programs (and even cultural thinking) when he says, “Creativity is often contrasted with forms to the latter’s detriment, but the truth is that forms are the engines of creativity.” [emph. added]

On this point, Stanley Fish agrees with the author of Genesis who describes the initial creative act when he says, “the earth was without form and void” which is to say, there was neither form nor content. For six days, the creator made forms and filled them. There is no better and more concise summary of what it means to create.

But when we don’t teach grammar and we don’t teach sentence patterns and we try instead to teach something we call creativity, we fail even to teach our children the rather low level skill (in my estimation) of self-expression.

Why, after all, is the sweetness of good words a healing of the soul? I believe it is because good words are true and beautiful, for if they are not true or beautiful they are not embodying the beauty and truth of goodness.

I also believe there is a psychological side. The human soul craves goodness in all its forms. So strongly does it crave goodness that it sometimes (often) indulgences in simple goods that are far less satisfying than greater goods. When we hear good words, our soul finds pleasure in them because they are good. They are sweet to the soul. They bring healing to our sick souls, and they give us a taste for more good words.

Thus it is the goal of the writer, it must be the goal of the writer, not only to express himself, not only to move his audience, not only to embody the truth, but to see all of these objectives fulfill themselves in the healing of the reader’s soul. The writer should at least try to write both beautifully and truly.

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