Words to the Wise
Syntax, simply put,
is word order in a sentence. When we write, we convey meaning by
the connection and relation of our words. If we ordered those
same words differently, we would change the meaning, sometimes
dramatically. When we order those words with skill—skill that
comes from command of the language and deep understanding of its
complexities—we "create prose that thrills."
Turning syntax "from
a minefield into a stamping ground" is what Sin and Syntax:
How to Create Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale is
all about. Hale defines syntax as "that collection of prissy
grammar rules dictating how to put words together." But not for
a moment does she suggest that any writer can get away with not
knowing those rules, which she also calls "the sensible system."
Learn the sensible system, she says, if only to know how to
escape it in flights of creative fancy.
The table of
contents of Sin and Syntax reads like the most ordinary
of grammar texts: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives; the
subject, the predicate; simple sentences. Don’t be fooled. Every
chapter is a fresh—and funny—take on old stuff, beginning with
Bones, the grammar sermonette; followed by Flesh, the lesson on
writing; and Cardinal Sins, the catalogue of true
transgressions, of errors made in ignorance; and concluding with
Carnal Pleasures, where Hale shows "how breaking the rules can
lead to breakthrough prose."
For decades, or
longer, style and writing guides have exhorted us to use the
active voice and omit needless words (Strunk and
White), or adhere to the "four articles of faith": clarity,
simplicity, brevity and humanity (Zinsser). Hale accepts all
that but goes further and deeper. She says: relish every word;
be simple, but go deep; take risks; seek beauty; find the right
Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose.
New York: Broadway Books, 2001.
Take a look at these articles by
Frances Peck, writer, editor and teacher:
The Secrets of Syntax (Part I)
The Secrets of Syntax (Part II)
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