Sin and Syntax reads like a skin mag. It feels naughty, as though it should be clothed in modest brown paper and read in glances stolen in solitary moments. Books on prose style rarely recall this deliciousness of illicit self-indulgence; however, books on prose style rarely demand “Grammarians, get a grip.” This book is so sensual, the content so lascivious, that a cold shower might be required following reading.
The book is divided into three sections: Words, Sentences, and Music. Within these divisions, Hale addresses each grammatical topic in four ways: the Bones section is the fundamentals, providing support to the Flesh section, which instructs the reader in the construction of prose. Cardinal Sins warns of the disastrous results of grammatical ignorance, while Carnal Pleasures delights with exquisite tastes of prose hewn well, either by masterful manipulation of grammar arcana or by selective application of the rules. The result is part plumbing, part Kama Sutra, and surprisingly riveting.
Sin and Syntax distills the art of writing to a few heady drops of liquor that stimulate the tongue. It is not the cod liver oil of the last generation’s books on prose style, that must be choked down a screaming esophagus and leaves a lingering aftertaste of condescension. While Hale insists “This is not rocket science,” she rejects the language of bureaucrats and academics, praising the unpretentious. “Relish every word,” Hale advises, “Be simple, but go deep. Take risks. Seek beauty. Find the right pitch.” Sin and Syntax hangs its ideas on those pegs, drawing the reader into the language’s boudoir, one discarded garment at a time.
Hale draws from a multitude of sources to make her points, from a 1969 Jell-O commercial to a letter sent to a young Lewis Carroll. The expected cast members make appearances: George Orwell, Hugh Blair, Mark Twain, and others have their say. However, Hale is not content to use only the words of the gods of prose style–politicians, advertising agencies, airlines, and wineries are just a few of those who lend their grammatical grand slams and strike-outs to the manuscript. These surprising examples make the experience more familiar to the reader, reminding him that the language is the bedfellow of not just the prose elite. The book, “[looking] to the ways the spoken and the written crisscross and connect and cross-pollinate” begs to be read aloud, to entice an audience into the hip, hypnotic pages.
It is gratifying to finally learn that infinitives can be split, prepositions can end sentences, and rules, once learned, can be flouted or flaunted to produce ravishing prose . Unlike the grammar treatises preferred by the schoolmarms and Marian-the-Librarian types, which leave the reader feeling like a hack, Sin and Syntax inspires an all-consuming love of the language. It subverts sanity, makes mad with desire to write. Fingers desperate for pens fumble with bodice laces displaced during so intimate an encounter with the language, as readers hasten to obey the commands Sin and Syntax issues: “Be infatuated. Be seduced. Be obsessed.”
Constance Hale. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. New York, NY. Broadway Books. 1999. 289 pages. $14.95. ISBN 0-7679-0309-9.