April 03, 2007

State, dog and syntax

Here's a book some of you will love and need to possess, one more from my MIT Press Bookstore haul of a few weeks ago: Virginia Tufte's Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style

Savor (or, if outside the US, enjoy the extra opportunity and savour) the opening paragraphs, which follow an exemplary quotation:

And the words slide into slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.
Anthony Burgess, Enderby, 406
Anthony Burgess is right: it is the words that shine and sparkle and glitter, sometimes radiant with the author's inspired choice. But it is syntax that gives words the power to relate to each other in a sequence, to create rhythms and emphasis, to carry meaning --of whatever kind-- as well as glow individually in just the right place.

The basic unit of English syntax is the clause. Its "slots ordained by syntax" are a subject and a predicate. What traditional grammarians call a "simple" sentence consists of an independent clause, independent in that it makes sense without being attached to anything: Time flies. Without losing its nature as a basic sentence, however, a "simple" sentence may include optional added slots such as spaces for modifiers, complements, objects. (pg. 9)

I suppose one could read the book as didactic, but it never descends to the nagging prescriptive, and few would sit down to read it: the book invites random visitation, nibbling, pick-up-and-put-down. Ideal bathroom reading, for those so inclined. It is about syntax, so it's stuffed with terminology that one has perhaps too tenuous a grasp upon: appositive, participial, nominative. But the commentary is focused on more than a thousand examples, lovingly chosen and clearly explicated. And the book is beyond elegant in design and typography (Monotype Dante), as befits something from Edward Tufte's Graphics Press. VT is ET's mom, professor emerita from USC, Miltonist and historian of English. And if you don't know who Edward Tufte is, you need to remedy that deficiency forthwith.

Posted by oook at April 3, 2007 10:16 AM

A Miltonist, even. I wish I were in striking distance of MIT, for all sorts of reasons....

Thanks for another rec for the queue. Tasty. "I live for syntax"--Raymond Chandler

Posted by: Gardner at April 3, 2007 01:44 PM