It’s thought that counts when it comes to good prose

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

This is a sentence. As is this — not an exceptionally beautiful one, but a sentence all the same, just telling you what it needs to tell you, just getting on with things, doing its job. Sentences are everyday, functional things, ubiquitous and unappreciated. And Joe Moran thinks it’s about time we started noticing them.

First You Write a Sentence is an often impassioned attempt to get us to take sentences seriously. Moran is interested in how they work — in how written language works, in construction and effect — and in sentences’ function as carefully assembled units of communication. That ‘carefully’ is especially important. Sentences are everywhere, formed without much attention and used without much thought, but Moran wants to encourage an alertness to their construction.

Some of the book’s most compelling sections seem indeed to be about this very thing: not about nouns and verbs, or monosyllables and vowel sounds, but about care. Moran is advocating attentiveness, deliberateness, absorbedness, slow and studied craft, pushing against ‘the glib articulacy of a distracted age’. Sentences are — they should be — ‘a gift’. Clarity is important, but this doesn’t mean characterlessness, or charmlessness.

There’s plenty in Moran’s book to delight grammar and language nerds, too, of course. He argues eloquently for fresh metaphors, and for monosyllables, especially when used by Tyndale. He rhapsodises on the pleasures of a long sentence expertly unspooled. And he wants more subjunctives, fewer conjunctive adverbs, and much less schwa. Oh, and nominalisations are very bad, too! (Good tip: always avoid an excess of nouniness.) He champions verbs, while encouraging only sparing use of ‘to be’ and the passive voice.

But — crucially — this argument is not made dogmatically, because there is a right time for nouns and for the passive voice and for polysyllables (‘this argument is not made dogmatically’), and for breaking any rules that need to be broken, because what really matters is that you think about what you’re doing, and you don’t make your sentences without due care. (Moran wouldn’t, I imagine, appreciate the unnecessarily clumsiness of that final tangled double negative. Nothing like an impassioned paean to attentive sentence-writing to make you self-conscious.)

Fellow writing enthusiast Lane Greene — an editor at the Economist — is no fan of dogma either. In Talk on the Wild Side, he celebrates the very fact that language is wayward, arguing that to try to contain it within hard rules is to miss its point and its wonder. The book covers some of Moran’s territory, but takes a step back for a slightly wider perspective. Moran’s beloved sentences are by and large a written form; Greene is concerned with speech. But this preoccupation is not about our language being debased, about people not using it properly; instead his target is those who seek to control it, using arbitrary and spurious (ahistorical, illogical) rules to signify some educational, generational and indeed moral superiority.

Pedants and grouches and sticklers and ‘authoritarian scolds’ don’t come out of this book too well. That’s not to say that Greene takes an anything-goes, ultra-descriptivist attitude (i.e. people can do whatever they want, and we merely observe what they do rather than dictate it). On the contrary, he knows what he likes. It’s just that what he likes is not people like N.M. Gwynne, who combine fervent prescriptivism with what Greene calls ‘an unerring instinct for getting it wrong’.

Greene’s book takes in the inevitable failure of quixotic — if sometimes admirable — artificial languages, and the rapid improvement in automated translation (this section is particularly good). With well chosen examples, he demonstrates languages’ resilience and variety (his subject is mostly English but he ventures abroad for a spell, too). He takes Orwell to task over his naivety about the uncomplicated benefits of uncomplicated language. Even Donald Trump and Nigel Farage make an appearance (when don’t they?). He is open-minded and discerning (if you need a basic rule: look at what good writers do, and do that), but he’s no zealot and no snob. Like Moran, he says things that are hard to argue with.

Simon Pulleyn’s The Secret Life of Language takes yet a further step back, to an even loftier vantage point from which he seeks to present simply ‘languages’ as his vast subject — not just contemporary English, which is Moran and Greene’s shared territory, but all of it. Across huge spans of time, across vast expanses of space, in myriad forms of use and notation: two pages on Celtic languages, four pages on Chinese, six on syntax, another two on runes. It pretty nearly works.

There are factual slips, but only minor ones; the bigger problem is that the format doesn’t quite cohere. The terminology sometimes gets quite technical (of necessity, I’m sure), but this register is set alongside jolly textbook-style illustrations, fun facts and anecdotes; and this is all in a pleasingly spacious spread-by-spread layout that suggests it’s for dipping into, while in reality it best rewards end-to-end reading. (The bit about ‘Languages of Mainland Southeast Asia’ on page 110 requires you to have read about ‘Other Language Families’ on page 62 in order to know what ‘areal diffusion’ is; the reference to ‘aspect’ in the chapter on the Pacific depends on your having read the Slavonic chapter; and so on.) It’s hard to know, in other words, whom it’s for. (Full disclosure: having just read Lane Greene, I confess I hesitated a moment over the wisdom of employing that slightly fussy ‘whom’.)

But for those flaws, there are many lessons here for the newcomer, and it’s powered by an undoubted enthusiasm — which is something all these books share. Moran calls his‘a love letter to the sentence’; Greene’s is ‘a love letter to language’. All combine passion with expertise in a trio of books that should please language nerds and others besides.

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