The Syntax of Literature’s Greatest Lines

The Joy of Syntax author explains why it's okay to break editors' rules (occasionally).

It is a truth universally acknowledged that great writers make fools out of great editors.

Great editors say, “Avoid passive voice.” Then a writer like Ian McEwan starts Atonement with a whopper of a passive in the very first sentence: “The play—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs, and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”

Editors say you should use correct punctuation. Yet Cormac McCarthy dispenses with apostrophes at will.

An editor who noticed a writer switching from the third-person to the second-person would fix it immediately. Yet in Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut switches from his third-person narration to directly command the reader in the second-person imperative: “Listen.”

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Some editors (present company included) would tell you to avoid cleft sentences, which start with “it is,” then relegate the meatiest information to a subordinate clause. Yet Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, got away with “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

The remarkable part: in every instance, the defiance pays off. Each of these sentences is far better than any by-the-book rewrite could have produced.

Why do they work? Magic, mostly. But to see how, exactly, the magic manifests itself, you need a basic understanding of syntax.

Take cleft sentences. They start with “It is” or similar as the main clause, then push the main idea to a subordinate clause: “It is Emily who discovered Alan’s secret.” That’s just a deflated way of saying, “Emily discovered Alan’s secret.” The cleft is often shunned because it takes emphasis from the main point and puts it on a pretty hollow clause: “it is.” But in Jane Austen’s hands, that cleft is used on purpose, to great effect. Sure, she could have said, “The truth that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife is universally acknowledged” or “Everybody knows a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” But Austen knew better.

And how about all those “donts” and “wonts” and “cants” in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? You can almost hear the long discussions McCarthy must have had with editors at some point in his career. Omitting the apostrophe is wrong, an editor would say. I’m trying to create an effect, McCarthy might reply. And he does. A powerful one. In the post-apocalyptic world of The Road, nothing matters anymore but staying alive. Not even the cause of the devastation—nuclear war? a meteor?—warrants explanation. The protagonist doesn’t even have a name. Eschewing apostrophes reinforces the idea that we’re in a bleak new world where little matters anymore.

Vonnegut’s sudden, unexpected command that we listen is powerful in part because we don’t expect to be jolted by a direct command in the middle of a third-person narrative. Commands are, by structure, second person because they contain the implicit pronoun “you.” The imperative “Listen” means “You listen.” “Eat!” means “You eat.” And so on. That’s second person.

As for McEwan’s passive, it’s the main clause: “the play…was written by her.” Passive voice doesn’t mean the verbs lack action. It means that the object of a transitive verb is made the grammatical subject of the sentence. “Briony wrote the play” is active voice. “The play was written by Briony” is passive. In general, passive voice drains the action out of a sentence. But for McEwan’s purposes, it’s perfect. The sentence conveys a whirlwind of activity. So when he puts the main action, writing the play, in passive voice, we find ourselves in a tempest like Briony’s.

And here’s one more thing great editors say: opt for shorter sentences. This is excellent advice, most of the time. Short sentences make a greater impact. They’re bold, unadorned testaments to the power of the information within. We editors often look for ways to break up long, multi-clause sentences, called compound sentences when the clauses are joined with a coordinating conjunction—“He likes cake, and he likes pie”—and called complex sentences when one of the clauses is introduced with a subordinating conjunction: “Although he likes cake, he doesn’t like pie.” When these get too long due to multiple modifying phrases and other elements, it’s often a good idea to pare them down by giving each clause its own sentence or even giving each verb its own sentence.

For McEwan’s sentence, that could go something like this: “Briony wrote the play in a two-day tempest of composition. She designed the posters, programs, and tickets. She constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side. She lined the collection box in red crepe paper. In the process, she missed a breakfast and a lunch.”

Why did McEwan thumb his nose at time-honored editor advice in the very first sentence of his novel? Because he could. And it worked. The lesson here: don’t try this at home, kids. Or better yet, do. But when in doubt, for us nonmagical types, you can’t go wrong following those great editors’ advice.


Calligraphy by Peggy Dean, author of the new book The Ultimate Brush Lettering Guide: A Complete Step-by-Step Creative Workbook to Jumpstart Modern Calligraphy Skills.

PEGGY DEAN is native to the Pacific Northwest and is a nationally recognized freelance artist, with a focus on modern calligraphy and line drawing. She is the author of the blog The Pigeon Letters and the self-published author of two best-selling how-to books: The Ultimate Brush Lettering Guide and Botanical Line Drawing. She has been featured in Style Me PrettySmitten magazine, and on the Today Show.


Peggy Dean Author Photo: Lauryn Kay

JUNE CASAGRANDE is a veteran journalist and syndicated columnist. She is the author of Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies and Mortal Syntax. She is a former Los Angeles Times staff reporter, and her “A Word, Please” grammar column currently appears in several community news sections.

About JUNE CASAGRANDE

june casagrande

JUNE CASAGRANDE is a veteran journalist and syndicated columnist. She is the author of Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies and Mortal Syntax. She is a former Los Angeles Times staff reporter, and her “A Word, Please” grammar column currently appears in several community news sections.

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