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Review of "How to write a sentence – and how to read one" by


30 January 2015

If you spend over 30 years as a professional tax adviser, you write a great many sentences. In such business communications the key requirements are clarity and absence of ambiguity, along with being easy to read.

Accordingly you develop a writing style which meets those requirements and is very different from the kind of writing one meets in literature.

I bought this short book (162 pages) in January 2011 after seeing a review somewhere and found it a delightful experience. In particular it reminded me that not all writing needs to be in “business English.”

An overview of the book

The book has 10 short chapters:

  1. Why Sentences?
  2. Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White [a US style manual]
  3. It’s Not the Thought That Counts
  4. What Is a Good Sentence?
  5. The Subordinating Style
  6. The Additive Style
  7. The Satiric Style: The Return of Content
  8. First Sentences
  9. Last Sentences
  10. Sentences That Are about Themselves (Aren’t They All?)


Chapter 1 Why Sentences?

The beginning of the book both introduces it and gives you an excellent flavour of the writer’s own style:

“In her book The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?”'Well,' the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?’” The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that “if he liked sentences he could begin,” and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. “I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ‘I like the smell of paint.’”

The point, made implicitly (Dillard does not belabor it), is that you don’t begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or a masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other.

But wouldn’t the equivalent of paint be words rather than sentences? Actually, no, because while you can brush or even drip paint on a canvas and make something interesting happened, just piling up words, one after the other, won’t do much of anything until something else has been added. That something is named quite precisely by Anthony Burgess in this sentence from his novel Enderby Outside (1968):

"And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning."

Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discreet items, pointing everywhere and nowhere. Once the words are nestled in the places “ordained” for them – “ordained” is a wonderful word that points to the inexorable logic of syntactic structures – they are tied by ligatures of relationships to one another. They are subjects or objects or actions or descriptives or indications of manner, and as such they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate, admire, reject, or refine.”

One striking thing about the above extract from the book is that the sentences are much longer and structured with much greater complexity than you would ever find in business correspondence. I was similarly struck by the complexity of the language used when I analysed the readability of the speech that the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made a few years ago about Shariah law.

Concluding comments

I would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to think more deeply about the way that they write the English language.


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