PART I — LANGUAGE: GRAMMAR, SYNTAX, AND RHETORIC
Model: Vanessa Duran
If technique is of no interest to a writer, I doubt that the writer is an artist.
The adjective is the enemy of the noun.
Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.
Scout, in To Kill a Mockinbird
Scout, in To Kill a Mockinbird
Americans’ speech, or to be more precise, speech habits that most use from cradle to grave, follow a strong pattern that often impedes them from writing well crafted sentences.
“Kay shaved her hair.”
Subject (Kay), verb (shaved), and Object (her hair): S-V-O
When people write, they bring their speech habits into writing. That is why so much of the English newspaper articles, essays, journals, legal briefs, and fiction that we read today are so soporific, even though the themes might be interesting. Just imagine your reading a lengthy paragraph full of these S-V-O sentences.
How many times have you, as a reader, found yourself putting a book down, never to pick it up again? Countless times I’d say. And all because many writers tend to write as they speak.
People in general are unwilling to give up life-time habits, even knowing that they have to be forsaken. Are you a writer that clings to the S-V-O pattern of writing? If so, you aren’t alone for sure, you are in the company of legions of writers who do just that.
In fact, the great philosopher Socrates—who by the way never wrote a book—decried writing as a deceptive invention, and loved to spend countless hours at the agora (the local market) gabbing, arguing, and speechifying until his wife Xantippe would send someone to fetch him.
Being a gabber, Socrates’ fear was that wisdom would ultimate reside in books rather than in the mind or in live dialectics. So he preferred speech over writing. In contrast, Plato —Socrates disciple— was a writer, and his Platonic Dialogues are writing at its best.
In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, the god Thoth, the inventor of writing, is accused of encouraging mental laziness: ‘a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.’ This is myth lore invented by Socrates and Plato to favor speech over writing, for according to them, only speech and dialectics point to true knowledge.
Because Francis Bacon —the great Elizabethan courtier and scholar— saw speech (“Idols of the Cave”) as a barrier to true knowledge, he went on to write many books. In the end gossip and false testimony (speech), much to his ill-fortune, gained him a year in the London Tower; an incident that confirmed Bacon’s thesis that speech may be distorted.
As it turned out, today we realize that writing and books have become the warehouses of wisdom. It is with the written word that wisdom is created, preserved, and expanded in the different levels of human endeavor. Even symbolic logic and mathematics need the written word to lock and secure exact meanings. Scientists use language to put forth their discoveries, their insights, and to falsify or verify them empirically. Philosopher Jacques Derrida sees in writing-in-general an entire system that nourishes the human race—archi-écriture.
Why should we write in the manner in which we speak?
By writing in the same way that we speak, we take the easiest path to writing—the path of least resistance—and end up overusing the soporific pattern “John hit the ball.”
There’s neither elegance nor eloquence in boring and disrespecting your reader with the S-V-O pattern.
Follow this excerpt:
She would not tell me what I wanted to know if she had wanted to. She would not take the time to even verify his date of birth. She was wide-eyed, blond haired, in her mid-twenties, and obviously bored at the job. Her friends had nicknamed her ‘Bambi.’ I gathered that much, because she greeted my every request with the haunted look of a dear caught in the headlights. She said no to everything. I finally gave up. I kept thinking that people like that exist only to make my life miserable.
How boring! The S-V-O pattern gets old in no time. Based on this, I’ve concluded that a serious writer should think carefully about opening a sentence with a noun or a pronoun of any kind, be they definite, indefinite, or possessive.
That is not to say that the S-V-O pattern isn’t useful, or that it should never be used. What we advocate is that writers limit their use in consecutive sentences.
To anticipate objections, I will bring up one counter example: the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Isn’t “It” a pronoun and didn’t Jane Austen write that famous sentence opener? My answer is that unless you can prove that you can write better than her and sell more books than her—you shouldn’t do it. Even worse, you shouldn’t even think about opening your sentences with variations of the verb ‘To be,’ such as (It is, It was, or It was not until…).
As I said before, although you won’t totally abandon the old pattern, you will see —as you read this guide— that there are more interesting ways to express thoughts. And as you adopt our techniques, you will combine them with the S-V-O pattern to achieve a more rhythmic, graceful style.
Mature writers —in particular those considered literary writers— are aware of the monotony of the S-V-O pattern and watch their sentence openers with uncompromising passion. By mixing their sentence openers with the S-V-O pattern, they add emphasis, variety, and rhythm to their writing.
Ah, the secret of fine writing unveiled here!
Let’s recognize that speech and prose are different. Speech is instantaneous, fleeting, and ethereal; prose is lasting, fixed, and earthly. However, our techniques used often enough will positively impact your speech, making it livelier and bringing you more rapt attention.
With a quick rearrangement of the S-V-O pattern, master fiction writers may create an expectation, prodding the reader to move to the next sentence and on to the next paragraph. And you need not become a grammatical genius —just a writer with an open mind who’s undaunted by grammatical labels. Vary your sentence openers and the magical dimension of fine writing will unfold in front of you. The S-V-O patterns slow down writers, halting them, obstructing them, forcing them to full stops—like speed bumps on the road.
Grammarian Virginia Tufte in her Grammar as Style, says:
Neither is he sentence opener a static factor, a grammatical fixed point to which the elements that follow are attached. On the contrary, the opener can be a crucial first move, overcoming inertia, ushering us into a thought, or nudging us backward for an instant, before activating necessary grammatical momentum to send us off in one syntactical direction or another.
Sentence Openers may be grouped as follows:
· Verbal Openers: infinitives, present participle (—ing), and past participle
· Subordinating Conjunctions as Openers
· Coordinating Conjunctions as Openers
· Prepositional Phrases as Openers
· Similes as Openers
· Absolutes as Openers