Why Sin and Syntax?

(From the Introduction to Sin and Syntax) Driven by some combustible mix of passion (for the power of words) and desperation (so many snags in your sentences!), you’ve picked up a book called Sin and Syntax. What, you’re wondering, does syntax (that collection of prissy rules telling us how to put words together) have to do with sin (the reckless urge to flout propriety)? Sin and Syntax plays with dynamic tensions in language: The underlying codes that give prose its clarities yet fail to explain its beauties. The sludge that muddles writing. The delight in the wacky. Sin and Syntax is about the skill that allows you, the writer, to harness such complexities, to create prose that thrills. Are you ready to turn syntax from a minefield into a stamping ground—your stamping ground? Forget schoolmarmish rules. Forget grammar as it was drilled in grade school. Rest assured, you’ll get your grammar here, on the theory that it’s best to know the rules before you choose to break them. This book will indeed show you how to avoid red-pen comments, but, more important, it’ll show you how to make some sinful mischief. If all this seems paradoxical, get used to it. Language is paradox. Sin and Syntax dwells in contradictions and dabbles in the eloquence of tradition, the intelligence of creoles, the decadence of slang. We’ll root around where language is most playful: in the pop, the vernacular, the mongrel tongues. We’ll examine how the highbrow and the lowbrow define the edges of prose and how the middlebrow dooms it to mediocrity. We’ll diss legalese and computerese and ditch the lifeless rhythms of Standard Written English. We’ll also summon the spirit of renegades who ignore taboos and make the language sing, from Shakespeare to Shake ’n Bake and from Joan Didion to Junot Díaz. With a little Bob Dylan and Nicki Minaj thrown in. We’ll wallow with Walt Whitman, who ridiculed the “dictionary makers,” insisting that language has its base “broad and low, close to the ground.” We’ll accept English as a robust, swarthy tongue, capable of surviving tumult and thriving on change. T. S. Eliot once argued that a language with identical spoken and written forms would be “practically intolerable,” since no one would listen to the first or read the second. Eliot was cool, but let’s not be seduced by false dichotomies. Insisting on strict or stuffy words in writing means you may miss the shifting brilliances of the colloquial. On the other hand, glorifying the spoken, demanding that people “write as they speak,” can put a higher premium on the pedestrian than on grace, style, and richness. A passion for new terms and easy abbreviation makes for readable emails, but discretion, sensitivity, and metaphor still matter. In figuring out how to write better, let’s look to the ways the spoken and the written cross-pollinate. Let’s look to texts like the Book of Common Prayer, which was written to be read out loud, and to orators like Winston Churchill, who wrote and rewrote and practiced and repracticed before he ever addressed a public. Let’s look to the voices of cyberspace and to the rhythms of rap, celebrating the syntax and sounds that make narratives come alive. …Straightening out grammar and syntax is not the be-all and end-all of writing. But a writer needs a command of language as much as a commanding idea. When style complements substance, when technique is put into the service of a good tale, prose can pulse with life. {This post is an excerpt from the Introduction of the second edition of Sin and Syntax.}