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Words to the Wise

Syntax Defined—and Understood

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 pitch.


Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.

Take a look at these articles from Peck's English Pointers by Frances Peck, writer, editor, and teacher:

Some Secrets of Syntax

More Secrets of Syntax

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