It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer's Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences
Robert Hartwell Fiske
We know from the titles of June Casagrande's books what kind of writer she is, and for whom she writes. Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, an earlier book of hers, is clearly not a book for accomplished writers or even, one can easily imagine, bright people. And so it is with It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences, a book meant for novice writers, as, I suspect, Casagrande is herself.
Casagrande's newest book is another in an unending assault of badly written language books (written by her and others) that are designed to appeal to dull-minded men and women. Publishers correctly reason that since a great many people are dull and unimaginative, a book written for this audience will likely sell far better than a book written for an intelligent readership. Well-written, intelligent books seldom sell well.
As Casagrande states, her goal in this book is to show her readers how to write good sentences, but many of her own sentences are not well written, which bodes very badly indeed for a book that purports to help people write well. Her Introduction begins:
This sentence rocks. It's concise. It's powerful. It knows what it wants to say, and it says it in clear, bold terms. (p. 1)
It wasn't immediately clear to me that she is commenting on her own first sentence, and I suppose it wasn't immediately clear because, aside from her first assessment ("It's concise"), her sentence is neither powerful nor knows what it wants to say nor says it in clear, bold terms. It is a silly sentence that has nothing (other than its brevity) to recommend it. This first sentence of her book is illustrative of many of the sentences that Casagrande writes throughout the book.
Though she presumes to advise people on how to write well, Casagrande occasionally reveals her distaste, if not contempt, for well-written sentences and the makeup of them:
Sorry to jump straight into hard-core grammar talk without buying you dinner first. (p. 29)
Personally, I have a strong bias in favor of short sentences. I suspect that the New Yorker's not-frequent use of longer, clunkier forms is a deliberate flouting of conventional wisdom a sort of "We don't take orders from freshman comp teachers because we're the New Yorker, dammit" approach. But I could be wrong. (p. 37)
I can't tell you which tense to choose for your writing. No one can. But there's much to be learned by professional writers' choices. Simple past tense is the standard form [when telling a story]. It's a safe choice. You can deviate from it, but unless you have a good reason to, maybe you shouldn't. (p. 102)
If you've come to this chapter looking for a balanced and reasonable discussion of semicolons and parentheses, keep looking. You'll find no balance here. I hate semicolons. ... Semicolons often serve no purpose other than to show off that the writer knows how to use semicolons. (pp. 125126)
Along with these misgivings, I've identified six reasons why Casagrande's It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences is not a book you should buy unless, perhaps, you do not know the difference between these two sentences:
Look, there's a cat.
Look, there's the cat.
1. Some of her advice is incorrect.
Health care and education are among the fields that have added jobs. The audiovisual industry is, too.
This isn't wrong per se, but it causes me to do a double take. The audiovisual industry is what? It takes a moment to realize that the writer omitted part of the second sentence. The industry is among the fields. There's nothing wrong with leaving things implied as long as the implication is clear and doesn't make your Reader stumble. (p. 119)
Casagrande is wrong. The ellipsis would be correct if is were are for instance, "The audiovisual industries are, too" otherwise, it is wholly incorrect.
June Casagrande, by the bye, is not a confident writer; she's not always certain about what she's proposing. She often qualifies her comments, as she does in the preceding example with "This isn't wrong per se" (what "per se" is meant to mean I don't know), and in her comment about the New Yorker, "But I could be wrong."
The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida.
The grandmother hadn't been wanting to go to Florida.
The grandmother hasn't been wanting to go to Florida.
The grandmother isn't wanting to go to Florida.
The grandmother will not have been wanting to go to Florida.
The first example is the opening sentence of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." The others are examples of how bad sentences might have destroyed O'Connor's career. These sentences are busy, they're abstract, they're a little confusing, and they take longer to get to the point. Of course, there are times when these convoluted tenses capture your meaning and mood exactly. But it's obvious that often the simplest verb tense is the best verb tense. (pp. 99100)
When the action of the verb occurs decides what verb tense to use; the time determines the tense. Verb tenses exist for good reason even though Casagrande would apparently have us reduce all tenses to the simple past, present, or future.
Sometimes tense combinations can be tricky. For example, compare
Copernicus was thrilled when he discovered that the earth revolves around the sun.
Copernicus was thrilled when he discovered that the earth revolved around the sun.
Which is right? They both are. But the first one is better. (p. 106)
Yes, the first sentence is better, and only the first sentence is correct. The earth still does revolve around the sun.
Here's another problem sentence. It uses a clause in place of a noun phrase and another clause as a modifier:
That you work so hard is the reason that you're getting a raise.
Fix it by looking for ways to get the action unstuck:
You work hard. So you're getting a raise. (p. 157)
Casagrande's correction two rudimentary sentences that might have been written by a 9 year old is no better and, to my mind, far worse than the original sentence, which, except for that second "that," is perfectly well written.
Yes, some of Casagrande's rewrites are worse than the original examples. Earlier she writes: "A lot of Readers might not prefer our revised paragraph. (Heck, even I am not totally sold on it.)." As I say, she's not altogether confident of her own writing or advice about writing.
2. Some of her examples are ludicrous.
Nine times out of ten, Barb was happy is better than Barb had happiness or Barb exhibited happiness. (p. 108)
"Barb had happiness" and "Barb exhibited happiness" are not expressions many people would consider writing.
He wanted to visit Brooklyn, New York; Queens, New York; and Schenectady, New York, and he had already invited his cousin, Pete; his mother's next-door neighbor, Rob; and the neighborhood dog, a terrier, to join him.
This writer is too enamored of her semicolons. (p. 127)
This writer, surely Casagrande herself, does know how to write inefficacious sentence examples.
Look, there's a cat.
Look, there's the cat.
Ever stop to think about the word the? It's a tiny word, yet it's huge. It carries so much responsibility. It leans so heavily on your Reader. It says, "You're expected to know what I'm talking about." I guess that's why it's so annoying when a writer hasn't done her due diligence before dumping this expression on you. (p. 112)
Only people unfamiliar with the English language, ESL students, let's say, would be puzzled by the difference between "a cat" and "the cat."
A few pages later (p. 117), Casagrande writes, "...remember to pay careful attention to your pronouns especially on the [italics mine] reread." I would have written "a cat."
3. She emphasizes that by using good grammar you can learn to write good sentences, yet she makes mistakes in grammar.
The writer and/or editors of the New Yorker may be among them. (p 38)
Corrected version: The writer or editors of the New Yorker may be among them
I can't help but think of Narcissus. (p. 56)
Corrected version: I can't help thinking of Narcissus.
In this chapter, we'll look at the fatty sentence problems that are easiest to fix the unnecessary words and verbose little insertions that so often plague writers. (p. 135)
Corrected version: In this chapter, we'll look at the fatty sentence problems that are easiest to fix the unnecessary words that so often plague writers.
4. She instructs her readers not to "zone out" and allow clichés into their writing, but she uses clichés.
... it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. (p 17)
... might fit the bill for your Reader. (p. 23)
And pat yourself on the back for getting through this chapter. (p. 35)
It's not my cup of tea. (p. 39)
Pat yourself on the back because three out of eight ain't bad. (p. 65)
Clichés effortlessly come to mind. Nothing is simpler to think of or write down, and little is more telling about an author's talent.
5. Not a few of her "sentences," in this book about sentences, are not sentences.
Especially when he failed to realize that he didn't get to assign me stories. (p. 8)
All great information. (p. 15)
On purpose and to great effect. (p. 24)
Not in this case, anyway. (p. 55)
At least, not in the sense we mean when we talk about the passive voice. (p. 90)
If you can pull it off. (p. 104)
But not always. (p. 135)
Not even close. (p. 150)
In a book that discusses how to write good sentences, Casagrande should be particularly careful that she writes only sentences.
6. She often writes badly and uses expressions designed to encourage her readers to like her.
When I worked in that field, the Reader was always in my face. (p. 7)
The job of a subordinating conjunction is (drum roll, please) to subordinate. (p. 16)
There's no doubt you're in for a good read. (p. 36)
Some even say long sentences are an out-and-out no-no. (p. 37)
I write some major stinkers myself. (p. 47) ["Stink" is a favorite word of hers.]
That just ain't so. (p. 76)
In fiction, especially, if a writer can pull it off, she's free to load up her stories with stuff like ... (p. 103)
What's up with that? (p. 115)
I hate in addition to. Don't get me wrong, I write it all the time. (p. 139)
The point is, either explain or don't. But don't half-ass it. (p. 162)
I presume Casagrande is pandering to her readership, her "almighty Readers," as she calls them, by using slang and jargon in this book. If she is not pandering to her audience, it's further evidence that she is not an able writer and ought not to be instructing others in how to write.
I don't mean to suggest there's nothing to learn from Casagrande's book. ESL students and 9 year olds may indeed profit from reading it. Still, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer's Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences may kill any ability, or desire, its more discerning readers have to write a good sentence.
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