Samples of great writing, examined
Artful Sentences has increased my understanding as to how syntax creates and conveys meaning. Virginia Tufte guides the reader through more than a thousand sentences she’s culled from some of the best writing of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her commentaries highlight the (easily overlooked) contribution of syntax to the expressive success of a well-crafted sentence.
This book is unlike any other on writing I’ve seen. It is not about basic rules. It is not a standardized style guide to be used as a reference manual. Artful Sentences is divided up into 14 chapters; each chapter covers a different concept related to syntax. Tufte provides her analysis first and then follows with an example. Sometimes she quotes an entire paragraph to demonstrate the impact the chosen sentence has within its original context.
Don’t let dry chapter titles such as “Short Sentences,” “Noun Phrases,” “Prepositions,” etc., deter you; the content is highly academic and at times dense, but it’s a pleasurable read in proper doses. I prefer to explore Artful Sentences in short spurts. The sample sentences often catch my attention first and then I dig in to see what Tufte says about them. (You can also use the index to choose a favorite author and then search out his/her quotes.) I process what I’ve read and return to the book at a later time — opening it up to any one of its 14 chapters and starting again. Reading Tufte’s book gives me the immediate pleasure of saying, “Damn, that’s a good sentence!” often followed by, “Now how do I create one of my own?” The experience is similar to learning about visual art or playing music.
Below, a sentence with parallelism best suited to a speech is composed of six kernel clauses, each with a noun phrase in the direct object slot. In five of the clauses, the parallelism and the repetition of the key concept they conserve emphasize the treasures being conserved in those direct objects:
These farmers produce valuable goods, of course; but they also conserve soil, they conserve water, they conserve wildlife, they conserve open space, they conserve scenery.
Wendell Berry, Citizenship Papers, 170
Another repetition of prepositional phrases, here artfully doubled, divides a sentence’s spaces into spaces into spaces. This helps to imitate and dramatize an effective simile emphasized by its syntax as a fragment:
Space is all one space and thought is all one thought, but my mind divides its spaces into spaces into spaces and thoughts into thoughts into thoughts. Like a large condominium. Occasionally I think about the one Space and the one Thought, but usually I don’t. Usually I think about my condominium.
Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, 143
In many successful left-branching sentences, there is a temporal or logical development of the expressed idea that invites the delayed disclosure of the left-branching arrangement. The material that concludes the sentence makes an almost inevitable point:
The afternoon after the night at the tavern, while O's were being taken out of books and out of signs, so that the cw jumped over the mn, and the dish ran away with the spn, and the clockshop became a clckshp, the toymaker a tymaker, Black issued new searching orders.
James Thurber, The Wonderful O, 9-10