Review: Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose

Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose
Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose by Constance Hale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the Packers needed help reversing their seasonal losing record, they brought in the now Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi. As the story goes, Vince began his tenure by holding up a football and saying, “Let’s start at the beginning. This is a football.” In Sin and Syntax, Constance Hale is standing in the proverbial locker room, saying, “This is a noun.”

I’ve read or flipped through about ten grammar books this year and this is the first book that starts with the basics. I have a high school grammar textbook on my nightstand that doesn’t even talk about parts of speech until page 150 or so. Each book I’ve read begins with lessons about being concise, word choice, or commonly misplaced words. Sin and Syntax is the first book I’ve read this year that starts out with Chapter 1: Nouns.

If I had to change anything about this book, it would be the cleverly worded title. As another reviewer stated, I thought this book would be salacious, but the author misses such easy innuendo set-ups like copulative and transitive verbs. (Side note: I’m still confused on the author’s perturbation about the misuse of the word ‘like’. I’m sure I just misused it, but I’ll daringly roll with it.) I would have liked more antidotal asides to help ease the starchy grammar lessons, but alas, no gun-wielding pandas or road-crossing aardvarks were to be found.

The sin in this book’s syntax was the formulaic setup of each chapter. To some readers, this may be quite helpful. To me, this moves the book from being an interesting read-through to being a shelf-puller. Meaning, instead of keeping this on the back of the toilet for a quick jab at the expense of some pop star, this book will be kept on the shelf for future reference—and that’s a good thing. But again, this goes back to the lustful sounding title giving me false expectations.

While I did appreciate the book’s organization, the heavily structured chapters drained the organic voice of the author. This was painfully apparent when the chapter on interjections followed the same outline as the chapter on verbs. If it’s not there, it’s not there—why force it? On the other hand, I’m tired of seeing other grammar books that read like the author hit “view all entries” on their blog, hit print, and then bound the random blog entries in a book. Sin and Syntax is very organized, almost to a fault.

There is also some confusion about the updates contained in this book. Beside the one bolded line at the top, Amazon’s description for this book and the older version are identical. I bought the printed version of the updated book and read it side-by-side with the Kindle version of the original. The new book follows the same hardened structure, but has been vastly updated. The author has done a LOT of work to update this book. I don’t recall seeing this many outside samplings in any other writing book. The author has also added exercises at the end of each chapter. What I didn’t find is a lot of references. The author does a great job explaining why certain rules are in place, but doesn’t always tell us who defined these rules.

For those looking for warm and inspiring writing advice, you may be better served elsewhere. The final chapters have some of that, but mostly this book is a study on the particulars of the craft. Those willing to take the time and study the samples and practice the exercises will be plentifully rewarded. Those looking for a quick read and instant improvement may be disappointed.

On an enjoyment level, I can’t offer this book many stars. However, if I put in the time to re-read the chapters and practice the exercises, I have no doubt this book will improve the strength of my writing (but maybe taking away some of the creativity?).

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