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Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose [Englisch] [Gebundene Ausgabe]

Constance Hale
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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


"Move over, grumpy schoolmarms everywhere. Your time has come.  For the writer or wannabe, Sin and Syntax  is an urgently needed, updated, and hip guide to modern language and writing. Nobody but Connie Hale could make the elements of 21st-century style so much fun."
--Jon Katz, media critic and author of Running to the Mountain and Virtuous Reality

"Sin and Syntax is one of the rare books that recognizes--and even celebrates--the fact that good writing has little to do with 'rules' and much to do with a true understanding of effective prose. Connie Hale provides us an invaluable service by showing us what works and what doesn't in the real world, regardless of what the pedants say."
--Jesse Sheidlower, Senior Editor, Random House Dictionaries, and author of "Jesse's Word of the Day" column


This reference book describes how copy veteran Constance Hale went on a mission to make creative communication, both the lyrical and the unlawful, an option for everyone. It covers grammar''s ground rules.'


Language is a sandbox. Let's play.
“Grammar is a piano I play by ear,” Joan Didion once said, “since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power.”

Didion's not the only one who wonders where she was when the secrets of grammar were taught. I grew up in a tiny plantation town in rural Hawaii. My teachers were so busy trying to wean us off Pidgin English (the Hawaiian creole) that they never got to nouns and verbs, let alone dangling participles!

So how did a nice-but-clueless wahine like me end up writing a book called “Sin and Syntax”?

When I began teaching writing in 1984, I sat down to figure out what made our topsy-turvy language tick, and found myself steeping in—aargh!—grammar. Despite that most schoolmarms and grammar cops have managed to drain the life out of syntax, I discovered something that is lively and intriguing and sometimes even hilarious.

The premise of my book is that in the arcana of syntax rest the keys to sinfully good writing, that the “flesh” of prose gets its shape and strength from the “bones” of grammar. Whether you're writing emails, academic papers, business memos, magazine stories, or killer love letters, you need to know which “cardinal sins” to avoid and which “carnal pleasures” to indulge in.

Instead of leaving you marooned in a sea of terms like “pronoun antecedent agreement,” “obscure pronomial reference,” and “dangling participial phrases,” I try to take you on a romp through brilliant writing, showing you how the best writers use grammar to their advantage.

“Sin and Syntax” looks at language as a huge sandbox: it's fun, it's creative, it's dirty. This book is intended to feel more like recess than the classroom. Go ahead, play!

Über den Autor und weitere Mitwirkende

Constance Hale ( is the author of Wired Style, the one-of-a-kind guide to online English usage and geekspeak that was hailed by Newsweek as "The Chicago Manual of Style for the Millennium." A former editor at Wired, Hale has written for numerous publications including the San Francisco Examiner and The Microsoft Network. She has created maverick writing courses for people of all ages, including a popular seminar called "Grammar for Grownups," and currently teaches at U.C. Berkeley. She lives in Oakland, California.

Leseprobe. Abdruck erfolgt mit freundlicher Genehmigung der Rechteinhaber. Alle Rechte vorbehalten.


The French mime Etienne Decroux used to remind his students, "One pearl is better than a whole necklace of potatoes." What is true for that wordless art form applies equally to writing: well-crafted prose depends on the writer's ability to discriminate between pearls and potatoes. Only some words are fit to be strung into sentences.

Great writers are meticulous with their pearls, sifting through piles of words and stringing only perfect specimens upon the thread of syntax. The careful execution of beautiful, powerful prose through beautiful, powerful words is guided by these principles:

Relish every word. True prose stylists carry on an impassioned, lifelong love affair with words, banishing bad words like so many banal suitors, burnishing the good ones till they shimmer. Be infatuated, be seduced, be obsessed.

But be smart about words, too. "All words are pegs to hang ideas on," wrote nineteenth-century essayist Henry Ward Beecher: words not linked to ideas are not worthy of writing-or reading. Once you've committed your words to paper (or to the screen), test each term. Does it carry your idea? Does it express, exactly, that once inchoate thought?

Sensitize yourself to denotation and connotation. Denotation, the dictionary definition of a word, refers to its explicit or literal meanings. Connotation, the suggestive power of a word, refers to its implicit or latent meanings. The denotations of peach (a single-seeded fruit with tangy yellowish pulp and downy skin that goes from yellow to red) and mango (a single-seeded fruit with a tangy yellowish pulp and firm skin mottled with greens, yellows, and reds) differ only slightly. But where peach summons up hot summers in Georgia and the cheeks of a Southern belle, mango conjures images of India and Mexico-and the paintings of Gauguin. The two fruits may be interchangeable in cooking, but wouldn't it be a mistake to swap in mango when writing about, say, the dusty peach chambres of a grande dame with a thing for Louis XVI?

Beyond the sense of a word is its sensuousness: its sound, its cadence, its spirit. In turning a phrase, let the words build like a jazz riff, allowing the meanings and melodies of one word to play off the meanings and melodies of the words around it.

Be simple, but go deep. The exquisite "cutouts" of Matisse and elegant line drawings of Picasso came late in long careers of painstaking work and wild experimentation. In writing as in painting, simplicity often follows considerable torment. "People used to call me a good writer," mused John Ruskin, giant of the nineteenth-century essay. "Now they say I can't write at all; because, for instance, if I think anybody's house is on fire, I only say, 'Sir, your house is on fire.' . . . I used to say, 'Sir, the abode in which you probably passed the delightful days of youth is in a state of inflammation.' "

Verbose is not a synonym for literary. A member of the British Parliament once commented that if a bureaucrat had tried to express Lord Nelson's "England expects every man to do his duty," posterity would have been left with England anticipates that as regards the current emergency personnel will face up to the issues and exercise appropriately the functions allocated to their respective occupation groups. Bureaucrats and business writers too often prefer big, words when they're naming little things. Let's not forsake short, common words that name big things-hope and pride, for example-or simple couplings that leave concrete impressions, like the red wheelbarrow. Shakespeare's "sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care" uses simple words to go deep. No big-shot words, but a big idea.

It's not enough, though, to be just simple. "Nine pounds where three are sufficient is obesity," said Frank Lloyd Wright. "But to eliminate expressive words in speaking or writing-words that intensify or vivify meaning-is not simplicity. It may be, or usually is, stupidity."

Henry David Thoreau pored over Walden, revising it again and again to find words that "intensify or vivify meaning." This journal entry left him unsatisfied:

I have travelled some in New England, especially in Concord, and I found that no enterprise was on foot which it would not disgrace a man to take part in. They seemed to be employed everywhere in shops and offices and fields. They seemed, like the Brahmins of the East, to be doing penance in a thousand, curious, unheard-of ways.

Setting upon those sentences, clearing the unnecessary words and repetitions, Thoreau crafted a single sentence with greater power:

I have travelled a good deal in Concord, and everywhere, in shops and offices and fields; the inhabitants have seemed to me to be doing penance in a thousand curious ways.

Thoreau manages to make his idea more specific by panning right in on Concord, paring down his repetitions (they, initially repeated twice, is swept away by the stronger inhabitants), and cutting more quickly to the final, stirring phrase.

Take risks. After having suffered the hyperactive red pens of schoolmarms and the hypercorrect rules of inflexible pedagogues, too many of us have retreated to the realm of the safe, the standard, and the vague. A "mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose," wrote George Orwell in "Politics and the English Language." "As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house."

Hidden in such prefab prose is a fear of going to the edge. But it's romping around on the fringes of language that gives writing its frisson. The right word might be snagged off the street, snatched from another language, or hatched in the sand tray of the imagination. Dive into the polyglot English tongue, taking a cue from Walt Whitman, that high priest of the rambunctious:

I like limber, lasting, fierce words. I like them applied to myself-and I like them in newspapers, courts, debates, Congress. Do you suppose the liberties and the brawn of These States have to do only with delicate lady-words? with gloved gentleman words? Bad presidents, bad judges, bad clients, bad editors, owners of slaves, and the long ranks of Northern political suckers (robbers, traitors, suborned), monopo lists, infidels, . . . shaved persons, supplejacks, ecclesiastics, men not fond of women, women not fond of men, cry down the use of strong, cutting, beautiful rude words. [But] to the manly instincts of the People they will be forever welcome.

Whitman's American English scarfs up words from other languages with a vengeance. If someone's bugging you, you can go the Anglo-Saxon route and shun her; or you can avoid her (Latin); or you can eschew her (French). Or you tell her to get outta your face. Don't shun slang, especially when it's vivid and musical and fills a gap in the lexicon. Think of the words Shakespeare invented: the adjectives long-haired, lackluster, unqualitied, green-eyed, heartsick, and hot-blooded, the nouns want-wit, vinegar aspect, and wit-snapper, and the verbs in lines like "You unlace your reputation thus" or "The tears that spanieled me at heels." More modern neologists have kept up the mischief, giving us gems like snafu, snarky, muckety-mucks, chump change, copacetic, airhead, hacker, and, oh, babelicious.

A word not in the dictionary is not out of bounds. Isn't the newly popular noun bloviator perfect to describe that dude who can't get enough of his own voice? H. L....
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