Week thirty-nine: Climb the tree of syntax

It is week thirty-nine of 2019. How did the writing go this week? My schedule has been off-kilter this week (for good reasons this time, not pneumonia!), and I’ve been writing and working in a lot of new spots. My wrists have missed my split keyboard and vertical mouse, but otherwise the change has given me a welcome jolt of energy. Having a regular schedule that incorporates time for writing is important, and I think it’s also true that you can train your brain to be productive at specific times (my brain starts tinkering away at this newsletter on Friday mornings, whether or not I’m sitting at my keyboard). But it’s also true that occasionally shuffling your routine can wake you up.

I also, just by happenstance, read this week’s book – Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century – in a different format than I usually do. As much as I love print books (and I still buy and borrow plenty of them), I prefer reading my weekly craft books on Kindle so I can easily reference my notes or search the books from my computer.

However, I happened to buy The Sense of Style on Apple Books soon after it came out in 2014, so I reread it on my iPad, which turned out to have some advantages. The layout of the book is stylish, and that’s something that often gets lost on Kindle. Pinker also includes a number of cartoons and, more importantly, sentence diagrams and other visuals, and these come across much better on iPad than on my Kindle Paperwhite. (I haven’t tried it, but I’m guessing the experience on a Kindle Fire is similar to iPad.) On the other hand, it’s much harder to get my highlights and notes out of Apple Books and into my note-taking program. The iPad is also much heavier and clunkier than my Kindle.

If you are an indie author who self-publishes, it’s worth making the effort to try out various devices, so you can understand what your readers’ experience is likely to be. I use Vellum for formatting and appreciate how easily you can see the layout in different e-readers, but it’s not a substitute for holding a device in your hand and reading from it.

Now, on to Pinker’s book, which is full of gems, however you happen to experience it. For fiction writers, Pinker’s book doesn’t supersede my recommendation of Brian Shawver’s Language of Fiction, but Sense of Style will be appreciated by anyone who writes nonfiction as well as fiction and by writers who want to know the logic behind the rules. A psycholinguist and cognitive scientist, Pinker always brings us back to the why, not just the what and the how. As he puts it, “The rules often mash together issues of grammatical correctness, logical coherence, formal style, and standard dialect, but a skilled writer needs to keep them straight.”

Pinker also does an excellent job of distinguishing between current usage and outdated ‘rules.’ One stated goal of the book is to give writers “the ability to discriminate between the principles that improve the quality of prose and the superstitions, fetishes, shibboleths, and initiation ordeals that have been passed down in the traditions of usage.” Remember this when someone in a writing group tells you to take every -ly word out of your manuscript. Rather than immediately firing up the “find” command in Word, spend some time figuring out the logic behind the recommendation. The Sense of Style would be a good place to start.

Pinker starts the book by taking apart some sample passages of excellent prose and “reverse-engineering” them to find out how they work, a practice he returns to throughout the book. As he reminds us, “Good writers are avid readers” and their skills often come not from stylebooks, but from reading excellent writing.

In this first chapter, Pinker identifies a few hallmarks of good writing:

  • Find fresh wording: for example, even when a cliché is the best way to convey an idea, a good writer can make it new. “Trying to direct team owners is like herding cats.” > “To suggest that directing team owners is like herding cats is to give cats a bad name.”

  • Avoid “verbal coffins”: rather than leaning on abstract nouns and nominalizations, direct the reader’s gaze to a concrete thing or “telling detail” that can stand in for an abstraction.

  • Vary your prose: mix repeating patterns (like parallel syntax) and familiar nouns with an occasional “planned surprise,” like an unusual word or a jump cut using a colon or dash.

  • Model conversation: a successful piece of writing “directs the reader’s gaze to something in the world.”

Writers interested in grammar and the deep structure of language will enjoy Chapter 4, evocatively titled “The Web, the String, and the Tree.” As Pinker explains the metaphor, these are “the three things that grammar brings together: the web of ideas in our head, the string of words that comes out of our mouth or fingers, and the tree of syntax that converts the first into the second.” This chapter is largely concerned with the tree, and Pinker explores the ways different kinds of words function in sentences and how, as both readers and writers, our brains work to group words and ideas into clusters to produce meaning. As a writer, you don’t necessarily need to wrestle with this chapter but, as Pinker points out, “Learning how to bring the units of language into consciousness can allow a writer to reason his way to a grammatically consistent sentence when his intuitions fail him, and to diagnose the problem when he knows something is wrong with the sentence but can’t put his finger on what it is.” (Interestingly, Pinker is a proponent of ‘singular they’ when he directly addresses the topic but has chosen to use the alternating genders approach in this book.)

Chapter 6, “Telling Right from Wrong,” is itself worth the price of the book. It’s prefaced with a reasoned discussion of what constitutes an error and how to make judicious decisions about what is right for your book and your readers. What follows is an alphabetically arranged list of common grammatical quandaries that you can turn to when someone tells you, for instance, that your work is full of dangling modifiers. (Here’s an example of a problematic dangler: “As a baboon who grew up wild in the jungle, I realized that Wiki had special nutritional needs.” And here’s a dangler you can let pass since it won’t trip up the reader: “Considering the hour, it is surprising that he arrived at all.”)

Throughout the book, Pinker insists on the transformational power of writing. “Good writing,” Pinker says, “can flip the way the world is perceived, like the silhouette in psychology textbooks which oscillates between a goblet and two faces.” This is true not just for readers but also for writers. Participating in that imagined conversation with the reader forces writers to escape the “curse of knowledge,” which leads to false assumptions about what a reader already knows and understands, and instead to find fresh ways to climb the tree of syntax and transfer a web of ideas from one mind to another.

Here’s to climbing the tree of syntax, y’all,

Next week’s book: John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

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