Friday, February 11, 2011

Syntax: The Short, Simple Sentence

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

In this blog’s first year, major topics included:

o Why writing is a great habit to have
o How to begin a writing habit
o Word Choices
o Researched Writing
o Analytical Writing
o Analytical Reading

With this post, the first in the second year of My Writing and Editing Coach, I will begin with the sentence or more accurately, various types of sentences that you can use to good effect in your writing no matter what kind of writing you do. The first of these sentences (also known as syntactical structures) is the extremely brief, simple sentence.

Joan Didion and Raymond Chandler, two of my favorite word craftsmen, use the short simple sentence often and very well. Here is an excerpt from a Didion essay about California’s Santa Ana winds in which she quotes Chandler.

"’On nights like that,’ Raymond Chandler once wrote about the Santa Ana, ‘every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.’ That was the kind of wind it [the Santa Ana] was. I did not know then that there was any basis for the effect it had on all of us, but it turns out to be another of those cases in which science bears out folk wisdom. . . . A few years ago an Israeli physicist discovered that not only during such winds, but for the ten or twelve hours which precede them, the air carries an unusually high ratio of positive to negative ions. No one seems to know exactly why that should be; some talk about friction and others suggest solar disturbances. In any case the positive ions are there, and what an excess of positive ions does, in the simplest terms, is make people unhappy. One cannot get much more mechanistic than that.“

Didion’s use of Chandler demonstrates one excellent placement for the very short, simple sentence (in this case, a noun and verb phrase or subject/verb), Anything can happen. It follows details and longer sentences about drinking, fights, and murderous thought. It emphasizes or punches home a truth: people turn nasty when the Santa Ana blows.

Didion herself follows up Chandler’s quoted short, simple sentence with one of her own: That was the kind of wind it was. She reinforces or emphasizes Chandler’s point that the Santa Ana causes friction, that it’s fraught with danger. Then, at the conclusion of a long paragraph (not all of it quoted herein), Didion closes with her topic sentence and her estimate of the Santa Ana’s effects upon human beings: the wind is a fuel source for the human machine, and it energizes our hearts of darkness. Didion says it much better and more succinctly however.

Another of Didion’s works is less analytical and more personal. The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir about the sudden death of Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, on December 30, 2003. It is a moving account of her grief and her effort to let him go to memory. It is also representative of her style, including short sentences used for emphasis to drive home key points.

Here is a sample from that book:

“In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control. Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare. There was the journal C. S. Lewis kept after the death of his wife, A Grief Observed. There was the occasional passage in one or another novel, for example Thomas Mann’s description in The Magic Mountain of the effect on Hermann Castorp of his wife’s death . . . . There were in classical ballets, the moments when one or another abandoned lover tries to find and resurrect one or another loved one, the blued light, the white tutus, the pas de deux with the loved one that foreshadows the final return to the dead . . . . There were certain poems, in fact many poems. . . . There were the days when I relied on W. H. Auden, the “Funeral Blues” lines from The Ascent of F6:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come

The poems and the dances of the shades seemed the most exact to me.”

The two short, simple sentences above in bold font are each used to good effect. Each bluntly, economically declares a point, one that is key to understanding the author’s points very well.

Reading Challenge:

Read the Founding Fathers--Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. They were masters in parallel construction, notable in fine writing, including the second Didion sample above (Note the sentences beginning with There was or There were), and they knew how to make use of short, emphatic sentences.

You may read Hamilton, Madison, and Jay in The Federalist Papers.

Thomas Jefferson wrote and Benjamin Franklin edited The Declaration of Independence.

Patrick Henry is, of course, the author of the Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death speech, delivered to the Continental Congress in 1785.

Writing Challenge:

Search your own journals, analytical essays, or researched essays for the short, emphatic sentence. Finding none, rewrite to make good use of it. My hunch is that you will find some examples in your own writing. Give yourself gold stars when you do.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Reading for and distinguishing short, emphatic sentences is great practice in usage. Writing short, simple sentences is even more practice so our GUM task is within the writing lesson of this post.