Notice how I prefer the word syntax (“the way words are strung together to make sentences”) over grammar (“the study of classes of words and their roles in a sentence, and of what is conventionally preferred”)? I try to focus on understanding the way language ticks rather than on upholding a set of rules, or “correct grammar.” I don’t necessarily agree with those rules; I like to encourage linguistic mischief-making. Enjoy, also, the tips, the historical background, and some pointers on punctuation, which become easier to understand once you master the idea of syntax.

The sentence as a miniature narrative

Introducing subject to predicate

I like to imagine a sentence as a boat. Each sentence, after all, has a distinct shape, and it comes with something that makes it move forward or stay still—whether a sail, a motor or a pair of oars. There are as many kinds of sentences as there are seaworthy vessels: canoes and sloops, barges and battleships, Mississippi riverboats and dinghies all-too-prone to leaks. And then there are the impostors, flotsam and jetsam—a log heading downstream, say, or a coconut bobbing in the waves without a particular destination.

My analogy seems simple, but it’s not always easy to craft a sentence that makes heads turn with its sleekness and grace. And yet the art of sentences is not really a mystery.

As writers we need to become sentence connoisseurs as well as a sentence artisans.

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Secrets for sinful prose

Divining the pearl

Whether you’re a floodgates-open writer or a blocked writer, remember: the first draft is for just getting the ideas down. It’s in the revising that we sift through our words, letting only the most perfect specimens adorn the thread of syntax. I am holding in mind the words of the French mime Étienne Decroux, who would remind students, "One pearl is better than a whole necklace of potatoes." The following secrets of sinfully good prose will help you banish the potatoes and burnish the pearls.

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Sorting out grammar, syntax, usage, & style

Decoding the elements of writing

Joan Didion, herself a goddess of good grammar, once wrote, “Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power.” Most of us share that nagging feeling that we missed out on an essential part of school. My language books are intended to sort out some of the cluelessness, but we need to go beyond grammatical questions. Let’s lay down some definitions, so that we can all better understand what is grammar and what it isn’t. Then we’ll get to some resources that will best help answer our questions.

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Elise Hahl on the birth of English grammar

Nerds, jocks, and the great English makeover

Businesspeople speak it. Academics understand it. Johnny Depp steams it up.

English looks so hot today that it’s hard to imagine it as anything but the homecoming king of global languages. But it wasn’t always so. Curious about the true story of our language’s past, I found myself studying a few musty old texts and contemplating Latin for the first time since high school. That took me back. I soon realized that high school gave me a pretty good metaphor for what I was learning. For if, at turn of the 18th century, all European languages made up a high school, English was the kid with the thick glasses and the “Kick Me” sign on his back.

The most common cardinal sins

Avoid these insidious errors

It can take years to master the nuances of syntax, but it doesn’t take long to learn a few critical basics. These seven cardinal sins are grammatical errors I see time and time again. Learn them or you will be asked to repent.

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Sentences crisp, sassy, stirring

Rendering ideas with syntactical style

Gabriel García Márquez writes unhurried sentences that almost defy parsing. William Faulkner lays down a nearly 1,300-word sentence that ended up in Guinness World Records, but he deploys the five words “My mother is a fish” as a complete chapter of a book. Joan Didion can stop us short with simple truths, and she can take us on strolls down labyrinthine corridors.

Trust these great writers: There is no one way to render an idea. Let’s explore how masters of the sentence play with length and style to make their sentences distinctive. But first, let’s review what we have learned along the way about how sentences can be organized.

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A punctuation primer

Dividing ideas with intention

Whole books—lots of them—have been written about punctuation, and I believe it would take an entire semester to teach writers all the ins and outs of parentheses, the slips and slides of slashes, hyperbolic reactions of the language mavens to simple hyphens.

Karen Elizabeth Gordon defines punctuation rhetorically: “What is it, after all, but another way of cutting up time, creating or negating relationships, telling words when to take a rest, when to get on with their relentless stories, when to catch their breath?”

Here is a brief primer on this confounding subject.

Nina Schuyler on the heroic search for le mot juste

Deconstructing stylish sentences

From way back, I’ve been an admirer and collector of sentences that transported me, illuminating a dimension of existence that I sensed, but didn’t believe was true until I read it. My love affair with the sentence continues. I still collect sentences, but now I take them apart to understand them. Often, the magic of syntax comes down to one word.