Short Sentence, Artful Sentences

This entry is a response to Derek’s post, about teaching the first chapter of Virgina Tufte‘s book Artful Sentence: Syntax as Style in his writing course. I’m not teaching this semester, so I can reflect on the book in that context, but I did want to reflect a little on what a book like this is good for. I’ve only read the first chapter (and flipped through several others), so I’m sort of thinking about my reading of the book as I construct it. I’m seeing several ways that this book can be productive to all sorts of different writers.

Tufte’s first chapter focuses on what she calls “short sentences.” I love her approach to the topic. She can’t go for more than a half page without offering at least an example or two of the structure she’s describing. Here prose, an example, her prose, an example. She establishes a great rhythm. But you’ve got to be careful, though. I’ve developed the bad, bad habit of skipping almost any sentence-level quotations I encounter. But they are the heart of Tufte’s text. You might think that her style, having to introduce and reckon with all of these quotations from different people might become a little wooden or academic-objective. Not at all. She manages to be conversational (maybe for audiences of which I’m a representative member, anyway), while at the same time offering smart and compelling observations about prose strategies.

What I enjoy most about the book, however, are the examples she offers. I recently purchased about book about some basic photography techniques. Despite my disposition for the printed word, I’ve had the hardest time concentrating on the prose between the pictures. The wide variety of high-quality photographs is often more compelling than the author’s writing about them. I often find myself just perusing the pics. Enjoying myself. Absorbing. Looking at them with the author’s arguments, observations, and advice still present in my head. This phenomenon is similar to what happens for me reading Tufte’s book. The big difference, though, is that her writing is just as interesting as the examples.

So I read and re-read the examples. Thinking not so much about diagramming them, or naming them, or wondering how they unfold for people. Mostly, I’m getting them spatially and musically. Short sentence, noun-verb-object. A falling measure in music (not a technical term; mine). Short sentence, long sentence, short sentence. Book ends. Frames. A string of noun phrases opened or closed with a short, stout sentence. Nails the thought to the deck. A short sentence in the middle of a long-sentences-paragraph. A still point in a turning world (see: Eliot’s Quartets). Reading the examples gets me excited. The more I read of this chapter, the more I wanted to get back onto my computer and see what I could do.

It’s been nice. At first, I wondered if I might try too hard to vary the sentence lengths. That it might slow me back to a crawl as I got bogged down in the opacity of my own prose. Not at all. I’m not sure if it’s lucky, or if it’s my background as a poet trained to listen to the rhythm of the language, but I sort of do this naturally. What was slowing me down on my dissertation before was my preference for the long, conjuncted, subordinated, and dependent constructions of ideas I thought were prerequisites for academic prose. At the moment, I don’t care. I’m just gonna write. Listen to the sound of my own voice. I won’t be as fluid or conversational as my voice here on the blog, but it’ll be closer.

But enough about that. Back to Tufte. I can see why students might be a little resistant to her. Her attention to language is close. I love that about her. But that’s because I’m invested in nuance, structure, and clarity. Pursuing those qualities would make anyone a better writer, especially undergraduates writers who aren’t yet convinced that communicated ideas must be instantiated in language, which must be executed physically. Can’t have ideas (or creativity, or solutions, or love letters, or Facebook posts) without language. I would hope that at some point they would come to realize that language with clarity and rhythm and emotion has as much potential for revelry as any other skill, art, or craft. If they ever realize, like I once did, that those skills are within their reach, at least eventually, maybe they be able to sit down with a book like Tufte’s and see it as the linguistics-porn that it really is.

This article has 1 Comment

  1. Glad to see your entry on Tufte. Working with the chapter in class, I would say students focused on the four short sentence types (the first half of the chapter) more than on the compound effects within paragraphs. Perhaps students grew impatient with the great number of examples. Engaging each example on its own terms requires a higher degree of reading exertion than some of the other texts we’re taking up with this semester.

    I appreciate that Tufte resists approaching prose style with the usual declarative (or even didactic) imperative. She doesn’t spout simplified rules or try to explain what writers should do. No textbookish commonplaces here. I read this as more of an archeology of sentences, a thoughtful going over of syntax as flexible structure (more cartilage than bone). And I also find her chapter on short sentences provides a generative contrast to Lanham’s Paramedic Method, in that she examines the logic of equative verb forms and also allows for left-branching sentences (Lanham acknowledges “is” verbs but clearly prefers right-branching patterns).

    I’ll probably ask students to read this chapter again in ENGL328: Writing, Style, and Technology (the class I’m teaching now). The said it made them more keenly aware of the simple components they understood tacitly but would have a hard time explaining to someone else. I can’t say yet whether (or in what class) I would deal much more extensively with Tufte’s book, but I continue to think about her work, and find something of lasting value in the build-up of examples alongside the build-down (or stripping away) of syntactic complexity.

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