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Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose Paperback – March 20, 2001

ISBN-13: 978-0767903097 ISBN-10: 0767903099
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Editorial Reviews Review

You gotta love a grammar guide that calls verbs "moody little suckers" and adverbs "promiscuous." Constance Hale (Wired Style) relishes prose that is deliberate, beautiful, and bold. Go ahead and break the rules, she says; just know the rules first, and know why you are breaking them. In Sin & Syntax, Hale examines the elements of grammar from four angles: the "bones" (the grammar lesson), the "flesh" (the writing lesson), "cardinal sins" (what she calls "true transgressions"), and "carnal pleasures" (the beauty that results from either "hew[ing] exquisitely to the underlying codes of language," or not).

For illustration, Hale hails Walt Whitman and Roger Angell, and rails upon Alexander Haig and the Gump's catalogue. She hauls in Joan Didion to make a case for writing in the first person, Mark Twain to promote the killing of adjectives, C.S. Lewis to advocate showing rather than telling, and Loudon Wainwright III to lament the abuse of the word like. But Hale has no problem making her own points. "Euphemisms," she says, "are for wimps." She dismisses a particularly heinous example of scholarly prose as "a bunch of big words thrown into an Osterizer." Even other grammarians don't escape her derision: "Get a grip," Hale says. "Hopefully as a sentence adverb is here to stay." But what distinguishes Sin and Syntax most is its enthusiasm for prose that takes risks. "Even if you have to check with a lawyer," says Hale, "isn't a kick-ass piece of writing worth the effort?" --Jane Steinberg --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Hale, editor of the hip Wired Style (LJ 10/1/96), has put together a writing/grammar manual that is fresh and fun. The basic rules are here, and they are well explained. The "sin" from the title is partly advice on when and how to break these rules. The other sins are examples of oft-repeated mistakes. Readers will not be told how to write a novel, a poem, or a newspaper article, but if they are writing one this guide will help them use effective and artful language. The examples range from Dr. Seuss books to John F. Kennedy's speeches to commercials, and a short bibliography of books on writing, grammar, and language is included. Easy to understand and appealing to a broad range of readers, this book is highly recommend for all libraries.ALisa J. Cihlar, Monroe P.L., WI
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 289 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books (March 20, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767903099
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767903097
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #68,193 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I am a writer and critic based in San Francisco. I grew up on the North Shore of Oahu, where I spoke "proper" English at home and Hawaiian creole (or "Pidgin English") at school and with friends. I'm sure that this "bilingual upbringing" gave me my obsession with language. I travel to Hawaii often for both personal and professional reasons, and to stay connected to that culture I study the hula here in California. (My husband says I will dance at the drop of a hat, but actually it's Hawaiian music that makes me want to move.)

I left the islands to get a B.A. from Princeton, then spent a number of years writing fiction and drama, performing solo pieces in San Francisco coffeehouses and getting rejection letters. I loved journalism, so got a master's degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, then worked as a reporter and editor at several California newspapers before joining Wired magazine. There I began seriously dabbling in the idiosyncrasies of the mother tongue and wrote "Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age" in 1996, and then "Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose," in 1999. The books got me dubbed "Marion the Librarian on a Harley or E.B. White on acid."

"Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch" completes the trilogy. I was still curious about the history of English--and indeed the evolution of language itself--and wanted to explore some of my ideas about how and why the verb is the linchpin of great writing. It's intended to be useful to professional writers and students, but also just fun and weird and interesting. I also wrote a series on the sentence for "Draft," in the New York Times Opinionator, and through my Web site I offer tips, techniques, and teaching materials to writers and teachers across the country and the world.

I don't only write about language; I've covered Latino culture, Berkeley politics, ethnic-folk music, and Hawaiian sovereignty in publications as diverse as The Atlantic Monthly, Honolulu, National Geographic Adventure, and Smithsonian. My travel pieces and personal essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous anthologies.

The secret to the writing I like: an unusual combo of classy and sassy. The secret to the teaching I like: smart lessons and hilarious fun. The secret to the life I seek: giving of yourself to others.

Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

106 of 108 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Rasanen on May 24, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Well structured, as it must be, Hale's guide presents both the nuts and bolts of grammar and the considerations of style that cannot exist without a sound grasp of grammar. The book begins each section simply, with the "bones" of the part of speech being explained, puts on the "flesh," and elucidates the "cardinal sins" and the "carnal pleasures" of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and so on. Even when the going gets heavy, as in her discussions of attributive nouns or appositive phrases, her clear, conversational tone smooths the way. She concludes with reflections about voice, lyricism, melody, and rhythm. One of the best features of her book is a glut of choice passages from the likes of Nabokov, Joan Didion, George Orwell, Jamaica Kincaid, and many others. Her well-read reach extends to rap lyrics and the wine labels written by the flip, clever copywriters at Bonny Doon Vineyards. The collection of quotations alone makes this book worth owning. At times the tone is slightly uneven, as when she follows a serious discussion of rules with the casual use of words like "gonna" and "wimps" (apparently she has a reputation for being hip to uphold), and she includes sentence diagrams without really explaining how they operate. Her advice to "go ahead and be ungrammatical if it feels right" may make some sticklers swoon. But these are minor flaws in a manual that is useful for beginners and seasoned writers alike. You close the book understanding how the rich inventiveness of English is rooted in its complex grammar and vocabulary, which are the reasons it can be so flexible, so magical -- the reason, in fact, that language creates reality. Includes a helpful appendix describing other grammar guides.
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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful By audrey TOP 500 REVIEWER on August 30, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Hale gives us a guide to grammar and style that is as fun to read as it is instructive. Occasionally the mirth is a bit strained and tiresome, but better to err on the side of entertainment ....

Divided into chapters on words (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections), sentences (subject and predicate, simple sentences, phrases and clauses, and sentence variety) and music (voice, lyricism, melody and rhythm), each chapter is divided into four sections: Bones -- the basics of grammatical usage; Flesh -- putting the grammar into context; Cardinal Sins -- highlighting errors; and Carnal Pleasures -- examples of writing that defy the rules.

The organization is mainly successful and the author uses lots of examples to show both good and bad writing. i learned from the book, re-learned a few things I'd forgotten (when's the last time you saw a sentence diagram?!), and enjoyed the book.
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49 of 52 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 30, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This book was recommended to me by a friend, and I have to admit that I was at first reluctant to pick it up. But I do like to write, and I figured that there might be some helpful information in the book for me. I was SO SURPRISED to find that I was actually enjoying reading the book! Hale's writing is so fun, and the examples she uses are great. You can tell from the title--SIN AND SYNTAX: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose--that this is going to be more exciting than Strunk and White, which I suffered through in high school. Not only will it help you improve your writing--with real world application for careers and the like, not just for students--but you'll have fun reading. Believe it.
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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful By on May 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book is probably one of the best grammar books out there, and it is absolutely a "Must-Read" for every writer (fiction and nonfiction, also journalists should read through it). The author is clear and precise in her explanations of grammatical concepts and possibilities, and she makes grammar fun. Some conventional approaches to grammar are challenged in this book, but the author Constance Hale--who currently teaches at U.C. Berkeley--is a qualified professional in her field. She's a maverick and she offers a healthy dose of motivation to be creative with your use of grammar in the new millenium. This book can really help to equip a writer with this certain edge in his or her writing projects.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Adamantius on January 9, 2013
Format: Paperback
If this were the only book of its kind, I would give it five stars. Since there are better options available, however, I have opted for three. On the positive side, this book offers budding writers a wealth of useful advice for improving their prose. Echoing giants like George Orwell, E. B. White, and William Zinsser, the author enjoins her audience to, among other things, avoid pretentious diction and unnecessary verbiage, including the ubiquitous "be" verb that all writers struggle with. (By the way, the author sanctions both split infinitives and stranded prepositions, so I think she would deem my previous sentence kosher.) To her credit, she also stresses the importance of prose that sounds good to the hear, something that many style books fail to mention. My biggest peeve about the book is that it completely lacks exercises. I realize this is not a textbook per se, but in my opinion any book that attempts the lofty goal of helping others improve their prose style should contain at least a few exercises at the end of each chapter. Writing, like any art or skill, is perfected only through doing, not through hearing. More importantly, though, I found much of the author's advice to be overly generic and difficult to implement in practice. Readers, for instance, are told to write prose that has a pleasing melody and rhythm, yet they are not provided with concrete instructions about how to achieve such mellifluence. While the author does supply copious samples of professional writing to illustrate the qualities she is discussing, the average reader, it seems to me, would face no small challenge transferring the beauty of those passages to their own prose. Of course, writing well is an elusive skill that cannot be reduced to algorithms.Read more ›
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