Constance Hale. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose. Three Rivers Press; Revised, Updated edition, 2013. ISBN: 978-0385346894.
From the quirky and playful title to the jacket copy (“Today’s writers need more spunk than Strunk”) to the introduction, Sin and Syntax makes promises no book on grammar — those dull, sometimes impenetrable, and often pretentious “rules” — could possibly deliver. Or could it? Could a book on grammar be a fun as well as an informative read that will teach us how to write “wicked good prose,” prose we all dream will bring a gleam to an editor’s eyes, leaving her morning coffee to grow cold while she reads on?
I had to know.
I also thought it important to know the credentials held by someone promising so much for one volume in the already crowded field of books on the craft of writing. Constance Hale is an author of stories appearing in newspapers from the Los Angeles Times to the Miami Herald, as well as in magazines such as The Atlantic, National Geographic Adventure, and Smithsonian and has been published in anthologies including France, A Love Story (Seal Press) and Best Travel Writing 2006 (Travelers’ Tales). She is also a founder of The Prose Doctors (an editors’ collective) and today edits for Harvard Business Press and works at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. She should know a thing or three about writing prose that sells.
That settled, I dove into Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose.
People often think that this is just a grammar book, but it’s really about putting it all together — words, phrasing, rhythm, imagery — and arriving at a distinctive voice and style. — Constance Hale
Turns out Sin and Syntax isn’t just a book on grammar. Oh, the grammar is there on the theory you have to know the rules before you can bend or break them, but Hale’s point throughout Sin and Syntax is that prose (flesh) “gets its shape and strength from the bones of grammar” and I think it’s an apt metaphor for the reason for those stuffy and sometimes pompous grammar rules: to bring clarity to spoken and written communication. Once we accept that grammar is more about making the underlying structure of our writing clear, precise, and interesting and less about correctness, the fear of the rules falls away and we’re better able to make them work for us.
Many of the books on the craft of writing — of which there are far too many and at last count I own thirty-seven of them by various authors — range from reasonably good to quite good at the what to do and why to do it yet leave many an inexperienced or not well-read writer to wail, “But how do I do it?” I thought if Sin and Syntax could show writers how to bring grammar and language together to craft prose that excites, on how to fine-tune our prose to bring life and movement to our writing it would have lived up to its promise. The book does that far better than most books on writing in the depth of attention it pays to each passage provided for examination. Hale highlights and breaks down extensive passages of stellar and engaging writing and speaking — from Shakespeare to Joan Didion to Cormac McCarthy to Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — and explains in detail how the author or speaker’s intended effect was achieved from carefully chosen nouns and the words surrounding them to the rhythms and lyricism (musicality) the authors instilled through their sentence structures. Yet, she maintains a relaxed and conversational tone and lets her witty style shine through and this makes the book an easy and enjoyable cover-to-cover read.
The three-part structure Constance Hale chose for Sin and Syntax is simple and progresses smoothly from the basic to the sophisticated through Words, Sentences, and Music, making the book accessible as a reference or refresher for the parts of grammar each of us finds trickiest.
Part I: Words covers the eight parts of speech, each with its own chapter: Nouns, Pronouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Adverbs, Prepositions, Conjunctions, and Interjections. (Have you ever been told you use too many adjectives or that your descriptions are too wordy or boring? You might want to look at your nouns. Or, that your verbs are weak or that your adverbs are redundant? Yep, that’s covered here, too, with examples that bring it home.)
Part II: Sentences addresses how these parts of speech are brought together to begin to form the bones of communication, again each with its own chapter: the Subject, the Predicate, Simple Sentences, Phrases and Clauses, and Length and Tone.
Part III: Music. The four chapters in this section delve into the ways we, too, can find our own unique voices and grow our own individual styles. These chapters are devoted to Melody, Rhythm, Lyricism, and Voice.
Does it surprise you to see music included in a book on writing prose? It shouldn’t; it is in the beauty, rhythm, and lyricism of the English language that we find the emotion and the ability to make the connections to other humans we strive for in our prose.
Each chapter in each of the three parts includes five sections:
Bones (the underlying grammar framework).
Flesh shows us how to bring life to our prose through specific word and phrase choices while playing with sentence structure to enhance those choices.
Cardinal Sins debunks grammar myths such as admonitions against split infinitives — just make sure you have a good reason for splitting that infinitive and can pull it off with panache — and ending sentences with prepositions (of course, we can). The “cardinal sins” sections also give examples of convoluted, stilted, and stylistically terrible sentences to be avoided, many of which we learned in school and business and technical writing and find so difficult to unlearn.
Carnal Pleasures — Ah, you were wondering where the “sin” in the book’s title comes in, weren’t you? — shows us how to break grammar rules knowingly and effectively to inject power and energy into our writing and grow our authorial voices as well as create unique voices for our characters and the voice of each story and story world.
Catechism sections conclude each chapter with quirky exercises to help us with such things as the exploration of the sounds of the words we choose in our writing, the sounds we hear in the world around us every day so that we can reproduce them for effect in our writing, and the metaphors we either create or employ in unexpected ways.
Great writers understand the richness of the English lexicon, and they take time to choose their words carefully, especially when revising. — Sin and Syntax
The English lexicon is indeed rich — in history, in variety, and in nuance — and it’s that better understanding of nuance which can elevate prose to the memorable, the precise, the profound, and the beautiful. If I have a quibble about Sin and Syntax, it’s that it does not address more thoroughly the importance of creating nuance along with the necessary precision in word choice.
Right here is probably a good place to mention Hale’s “five new principles of prose” which she revisits throughout Sin and Syntax:
- Relish every word.
- Aim deep, but be simple.
- Take risks.
- Seek beauty.
- Find the right pitch.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to tape those principles just above your keyboard or writing station as a reminder of what you’re seeking to accomplish in each writing session. I did.
So does Sin and Syntax live up to the promises made that the information contained within will help us write “wicked good prose”? Overall, I think it does and I recommend Sin and Syntax as an addition to every writer’s bookshelf.
See Contance Hale’s Website Sin and Syntax | An online salon for those who love wicked good prose. Ari Meermans has been a teacher, technical writer, and Software/IT project manager. She is a language and writing enthusiast and chocolate fiend. When her nose isn’t buried in a book, she can be found at Absolute Write.