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It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer's Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences

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  • Posted July 30, 2010

    Truly Tripe

    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. 125-126)

    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.


    [Read the complete review of this book in The Vocabula Review.]

    3 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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