Book Review: “Sin and Syntax”
In 1999, writer and editor Constance Hale, perhaps inspired by Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s whimsically worded and illustrated grammar and punctuation guides, wrote Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. Hale’s book, like Gordon’s works, remains superb proof that reading handbooks about writing can be an experience both nutritious and tasty.
Sin and Syntax is organized into three themed sections: One examines language at the word level, devoting chapters to the parts of speech. Then Hale broadens her view to encompass sentences, first scrutinizing the relationship between the subject and the predicate before analyzing the structure of simple sentences (warning: sentence diagrams ahead), dissecting phrases and clauses, and discussing sentence variety. Finally, after laying the groundwork with these topics, she explores voice, lyricism, melody, and rhythm in a section titled “Music.”
The first two parts, especially, may sound dry, but the author takes care to maintain a brisk, lively presentation replete with playful prose and many illustrative examples. In each chapter, she provides background information (“Bones”), lessons (“Flesh”), exhibits of writing gone awry (“Cardinal Sins”), and specimens of prose that transcend rigid adherence to rules (“Carnal Pleasures”). The “Music” section is the dessert that celebrates deliciously agile, adventurous composition.
Hale adds helpful brief appendices that explore tense and mood, as well as a reading list, and there’s an entertaining foreword by Gordon.
Whether you’re just embarking on career that involves writing or you consider yourself a well-versed veteran, you’re likely to find Sin and Syntax an intoxicating introduction or a refreshing refresher course.
Hale is also the coauthor, with Jessie Scanlon, of Wired Style, written while she was copy chief at Wired magazine — the book helped free the periodical-publishing world from staid style with its championing of a vivid new approach to writing and reporting — and the upcoming Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing. She also shares her thoughts at Sin and Syntax: An Online Salon for Those Who Love Wicked Good Prose.
Note: Though Hale’s tenure at Wired and mine did not overlap (she left shortly before I was hired), I met her when she later visited the magazine’s offices, and she was a guest speaker in my editing classes at UC Berkeley Extension in the late 1990s and early 2000s. With this acquaintance in mind, I have tried to be objective. (If I hadn’t liked the book, I probably would simply have refrained from reviewing it, but that’s my strategy for all my reviews on the site; I prefer to recommend good guides rather than criticize poor ones.)
You can find the book on Amazon.com
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