Getting It Exactly Right

By Herbert Kohl

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style
By Virginia Tufte
(Graphics Press, 2006)
310 pp. $16

Beautiful Evidence
By Edward Tufte
(Graphics Press, 2006)
214 pp. $52

Syntax is the way sentences are put together, and the way in which parts of speech and phrases are orchestrated to make meaningful and interesting writing. If you teach syntax, want to write, or delight in wonderfully constructed sentences, Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences is a book for you. It is not an easy read. In fact, I am now rereading it carefully. But I believe that anyone who is serious about developing students’ sense of how language works and how they can take control of their own writing, must read this book.

Tufte, a professor emerita of English at the University of Southern California, built her book around 1,500 carefully selected sentences from the best writing in the English language. The first chapter, for example, is on the use of short sentences:

Everyone has someone. Except me.
(Carolyn See)
Autos honked. Trees rustled. People passed. Arnie went out.
(Langston Hughes)

Tufte points out how some short sentences stand alone, and how others carry a story along or help develop pacing when used in counterpoint to longer, more complex sentences. As an example she offers this selection from Nikki Giovanni’s Quilting the Black-eyed Pea:

She froze to death because of the indifference of the people inside with a fireplace and food and drink. This is not fun. And that was that. This is not a musical. This is not fun.

I have always found the formal study of syntax tedious and barely teachable, but I have now changed my mind. With 1,500 wonderful sentences and a clear analysis of how they work, syntax becomes magical­—a powerful way to understand strong writing and to introduce students to the power of creating a well-formed sentence that expresses just what they mean.

I discovered Artful Sentences through the works of Virginia Tufte’s son Edward, professor emeritus at Yale University, and the author, designer, and publisher of Visual Explanations, Envisioning Information, and other transforming books on the visual display of information. Edward Tufte’s books are some of the most beautifully produced books I have ever encountered. The presentation, form, illustrations, and typefaces are in their own way comparable to medieval illustrated manuscripts. Tufte, not content with commercial or academic publishing, published these books (and his mother’s book) himself.

I just recently finished reading his latest book, Beautiful EvidenceBeautiful Evidence is about the truthful, elegant, and clarifying display of complex information in visual form. The book is a treasure.

For readers of Rethinking Schools, one of the most important chapters is the one on PowerPoint presentations. The chapter is titled “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within.” It is a convincing deconstruction of the program. Tufte convinced me to avoid PowerPoint whenever possible, and to use it with students only with great care and attention to the appropriate representation of complex information. What is wonderful about Beautiful Evidence is that it provides many other, more effective ways to organize and present information.

Herbert Kohl’s most recent book is The Herb Kohl Reader.