Sin and Syntax

Sin and Syntax
Constance Hale
(Three Rivers Press, pp 306)



sinandsyntaxAudience: Fiction and nonfiction writers

Scope: Grammar: words, sentences, and the music of fine prose.

Overview: I heard Constance Hale speak at the 2015 San Francisco Writer’s Conference. Her talk inspired me so much, I attended every other class she gave that weekend. Then I got home and bought her book, Sin and Syntax.

I went to school back in the days when students still diagrammed sentences up on the whiteboard. But it wasn’t until my junior year of college and English 405: Principles of Grammar that I really came to understand just what those pesky words—adverb, gerund, correlating conjunction—really meant. So in reading Ms. Hale’s book, I wasn’t really looking for a grammar lesson but a discussion of how proper and pithy syntax contributes to great prose.

I got both. The book covers parts of speech and sentence construction as well as topics like rhythm, lyricism, and voice. Each chapter begins with an overview of the basics. Just what is a preposition or an interjection? Then it moves on to correct and creative usage. How do interjections change the tone of writing? How does a preposition lend itself to parallel construction?

That, for me, was where the book really shined. Unlike those rote exercises I preformed in middle school, learning adverb from article so I could pass a test at the end of the term, Sin and Syntax took me to the so-what and ah-ha level. Here are a few gems:

Key Points:

  • “The flesh of prose gets its shape and strength from the bones of grammar.”

Thrilling prose rests upon strong grammar. Great stories rest upon thrilling prose.

  • “Beyond the sense of a word is its sensuousness: its sound, its cadence, its spirit.”

There’s more to a word than its dictionary definition. Whether it’s a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb take the time to fine the perfect one.

  • “Look out for verbs that convey less action than other words in the sentence and avoid them.”

For example, “The team had three wins and a loss.” –> “The team won three matches and lost one.” Or “The team scored three wins and suffered one loss.” Mr. Hale wrote an entire book about verbs: Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch.

  • “Inspiration starts with acute observation.”

Part of finding an apt adjective (it is okay to use them sparingly) or a vivacious verb is learning to pay attention to nuance. Are those grapes really green or a more chartreuse color? Did the man climb the fence or clamber up it?

  • “To tell a story in a few words, think strong subject, strong predicate.”

Short sentences have their place. Longer sentences, the kind that circle and meander, enrich prose as well. Either way, keep track of what Ms. Hale calls, the “What” and the “So What.”

  • “The art of a sentence comes down to experimentation, skill, and variety.”

Crafting great prose takes effort. Don’t settle for the mediocre. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Dip into the colloquial, the literary, the archaic, the cutting-edge.

After reading Sin and Syntax, my book club debated whether one needs to learn the basic principles of grammar to write well or whether one just absorbs these principles through wide reading. What do you think?


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