Dipping Into Books: Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte

I saw references to this book someplace or other, tossed it onto my Amazon wishlist, and lo and behold, here it is.

I’m not sure it’s the book I’m most pleased about adding to the stack on my coffee table, but it’s up there.  Let me tell you a little about this book.

Tufte leaps into the book with no real introduction or forward or anything; and comments in the chapter are also very limited. This is very much a book about examples. It’s meant to nudge the reader to become conscious of some aspects of syntax, of the effect syntax has on the feel of the sentence. I think if you already notice sentences, you’d probably enjoy this book because who doesn’t enjoy looking at sentences, right? I also think if someone doesn’t tend to notice sentences, this book might help develop a consciousness of sentence structure. Would that be useful? Beats me, but I think it’s a neat thing to notice.

I guess I should add, I’m the kind of person who, when I hit an interesting or awkward sentence in a novel, will probably try rephrasing it several different ways to see how that feels. I don’t know if I tended to do that before I started writing, but I kind of think I did. I kind of think I’ve always noticed sentences and related elements of craft, like paragraph breaks and whatever else. So I guess I would say, Woohoo, sentences! But I really like this book.

What does Tufte actually cover? Short sentences, noun phrases, verb phrases, adjectives and adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and coordination, dependent clauses, sentence openers and inversion, branching sentences, appositives, interrogatives and imperatives, parallelism, cohesion, and something called “syntactical symbolism.” Not sure what that is, but I really like lots of the stuff she’s talking about. She covers more than that; those are the chapters, but she points out the use of fragments in description in the “adjectives and adverbs” chapter, for example.

I’ve glanced into the book here and there, but let’s take a look at “adjectives and adverbs” because that’s a topic I revisit here rather frequently.

Here’s a sentence at the beginning of this chapter:

The cool globes of dew or rain broke in showers of iridescent spray about his nose; the earth, here hard, here soft, here hot, here cold, stung, traced, and tickled the soft pads of his feet.

This is Virginia Woolf, showcasing adjectives, obviously. (And verbs.) (And parallelism.) What do you think? I’ve never read anything by Virginia Woolf, though I’ve heard of her, of course. I like this sentence. I think this is a dog or cat or some other animal? Oh, later in the chapter, Tufte identifies this – it is an animal; in fact, it’s Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel. It would be a good sentence to use to talk about sentences, especially about commas.

Here’s another:

The limping earnestness of his speech disappeared; he talked as he drank, abundantly.

That’s Desmond Hall, demonstrating the use of the irreplaceable, indispensable adverb, and good for him. The adverb here is doing a lot of heavy lifting. So are the adjectives, but putting the adverb at the end lends it considerable emphasis.

Here’s Virginia Tufte:

Adjectives and adverbs offer to writers extraordinary resources and subtleties. Along with nouns and verbs, they are content words, the four words classes forming the great bulk of the vocabulary whose main job is to carry content or meaning. … the remarkable richness of English word classes, including adjectives and adverbs, and the ways they work ingeniously together in sentences invite creative variety, as seen in the examples that follow. … Lots of examples, and then: Adverbs have a place, an optional niche, at the end of any kernel. But they become the most mobile of all speech parts and are able to work in positions almost anywhere in the sentence

Gently he stopped the machine. – Romain Gary, Nothing Important Ever Dies

He was always two men. Alan Paton, Too Late the Phalarope.

It was very hot and bright and the houses looked sharply white. – Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises.

The acquisition of complex sentences has not received nearly as much attention as the acquisition of syntactic phenomena in simple sentences, unfortunately. – Van Valin and LaPolla, Syntax.

And Tufte then notes that yes indeed, putting the adverb at the end emphasizes it. Setting any single word off with a comma at the end of sentence always emphasizes the word, usually to great effect, as here in this sentence Tufte uses to illustrate this phenomenon:

A few minutes later he slumped from his chair, dead. –Jerry Allen, The Thunder and the Sunshine.

Boom, a common, easy technique of emphasizing a word by isolating it at the end of the sentence. I bet we’ve seen versions of that in one million murder mysteries. Everyone does this, because it works really well.

You also get emphasis if you isolate a single adjective or adverb in the middle of a sentence:

Perhaps they reminded me, distantly, of myself, long ago. Perhaps they reminded me, dimly, of something we had lost. – James Baldwin, Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone.

Wow, that’s a neat couple of sentences. I’m distracted by how much I like the syntax here, especially since Baldwin is also illustrating why adverbs are excellent when used properly and well. Let’s pause and look at these two sentences with different punctuation. All these versions are going to be correct. The punctuation is purely a matter of artistic preference.

Perhaps they reminded me distantly of myself long ago. Perhaps they reminded me dimly of something we had lost.

Perhaps they reminded me distantly of myself long ago; perhaps they reminded me dimly of something we had lost.

Perhaps they reminded me, distantly, of myself long ago; perhaps they reminded me, dimly, of something we had lost.

What do you think?

I think Baldwin got it right. His version is the best. Why is it the best? Because it feels the best. What do I mean by “feels?” I mean the pauses feel right, the pauses create the right emphasis, the most effective emphasis.

When I say I pause and try revising sentences when I read, this is what I mean. This is the kind of thing I actually do – not with every sentence (obviously), but interesting sentences, poetic sentences; or the reverse, sentences that seem awkward. I really do pause for a second and try different punctuation or different word order or different word choices in my head, decide whether I think the author handled that sentence as effectively as possible. And yes, I will do that even if I am caught up in the story at the time. It’s like two different experiences of the story are happening at the same time: the story as a story and the sentences as sentences. I wonder if any of you do that? Maybe it’s relatively common among writers, to read a novel with this kind of dual appreciation for story and sentences?

How about this, from later in the chapter on adjectives and adverbs:

Whereas the truth was, as he alone knew, that the heavens were a glorious blazing golden limitless cathedral of unending and eternal light. – John Knowles, Indian Summer.

Wow, that’s wonderful. Would you prefer commas between all those adjectives? I wouldn’t. I like it just the way Knowles did it. I haven’t read this story or essay or whatever it is. Given the sentence in isolation, I would like it even better if you cut “as he alone knew.”

Whereas the truth was that the heavens were a glorious blazing golden limitless cathedral of unending and eternal light.

I like the rushed feeling, the feeling of opening up. I’m not sure I’m expressing that properly.

Tufte says, An opposite technique to the careful placement and demarcation of isolated adjectives is the deliberate piling up of a number of modifiers immediately in front of a headword. … the result of such insistent modification, such an emphatic welter of description, is often highly charged and emotive. I think that’s right; I think that might be what I mean by “the feeling of opening up” – I might mean “emotive.”

This book is all about beautiful, effective sentences, so there aren’t many examples of bad sentences. Lots of examples of highly descriptive paragraphs, including from Harry Potter, TLotR, CS Lewis. Also Dylan Thomas, Cornel West, lots of others. Lots of great paragraphs, all different, all showcasing great use of adjectives or adverbs. Look at this one – it’s especially interesting –

It was a good peace, that spread. Those were good leaves up there, with a good, bright sky beyond them. This was a good earth beneath my back, soft as a bed, and in all its unexamined depths was a good darkness. – William Golding, The Pyramid.

Try to do that in a classroom setting and the instructor would tell you that you could do better than to use “good” five times in three sentences, but could you? Tufte uses this as an example of creating a mood via repetition of this simple adjective. Where did I see something about repetition to create a mood? … Oh, it was in regard to CS Lewis, The Silver Chair, the repetition of “silver” and similar words when Lewis is describing the underground region.

In this whole chapter, Tufte spares maybe a couple of sentences about the possible misuse of adverbs. The rest of the chapter is all about illustrating what you can do with adjectives and adverbs and demonstrating that description is not something to treat casually.

Great chapter, great book, I’m going to have this one on my coffee table for the foreseeable future.

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8 thoughts on “Dipping Into Books: Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte”

  1. Writing pastiches is one of the best writing exercises to develop style. As long as you remember they are exercises.

  2. Wow, this is amazing. I don’t think appreciating good writing is common among writers or readers, but I certainly tend to pause when I read a sentence that’s either terrible or really fantastic. Sometimes going from a work that’s ‘lightly’ written (how do I phrase this? It’s not that it’s poorly written, it’s just not on the level of any of these examples) to another where the style is superb, I am shocked by the difference. It is so satisfying to read something truly well written.

    Interestingly, that sample from Indian Summer makes me slow down when I read it, not rush, but yes, very emotive. And I laughed at the isolation examples. Yes, we need more of this.

  3. I’m not as aware of sentences and word structure as I’d like to be. There are a few authors who make me pause and consider (in a good way), mostly because their sentences are so long and convoluted that I have to stop and parse and find the noun and verb. I’m thinking of Robin McKinley, for example. There are also some books that make me stop and consider, and wonder if anyone edited before publishing. But I rarely finish those ones!

  4. I don’t necessarily pay attention to sentences; a book can be enjoyable with an “invisible” style, writing competent enough to keep you going without calling attention to itself. But whenever I come across a striking moment in a book—when I feel a strong emotion or reaction to what’s happening—I do stop to reread the sentences to see why they impacted me so much. And inevitably the sentence structure has created the impact.

    I’m with Mary: if a sentence ever makes me stop because it’s so bad, I probably won’t keep reading the book. Or, if I’m losing interest in a book even though the premise and plot and characters should theoretically be hooking me, it’s almost always due to flaccid prose, and I want to get out my red pen and tighten it up!

  5. Kim, of course you do. You editors must have the worst time reading bad sentences!

    I may actually read books where the sentences are, ah, less than stellar. I certainly notice awkward or wooden prose, but occasionally I like the story enough to read it anyway. What I wind up doing, though, is wishing the author would work, not necessarily with a developmental editor, but with a good copy editor. Let the copy editor revise heavily for style, even enough to merit putting their name on the cover as a second author. These books could sometimes be a lot better with relatively little work.

    Mona, I once read two vampire novels in a row, purely by chance. The first was Fledgling by Octavia Butler. The contrast in going from her book to whatever the second one was hit me hard. It was absolutely staggering.

  6. Interesting! I’ll have to look for this book.

    I had to google her when I read her last name. Turns out she’s the mother of Edward Tufte.
    Her son’s books were considered essential reading when I started writing technical manuals. (He writes about information design, i.e. how you present information can determine how effectively it is communicated. No, don’t look at me like that. Honestly, the subject is much more interesting than I made it sound.)

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