Before you read one more word, please click on this link and read this essay, an excerpt from the novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. Do it now. I’ll wait. I’ll even wait while you order the book. The rest is as fabulous as the excerpt. Clicking on the title or picture of the book above will whisk you to Amazon via my affiliate link. Just don’t get shopping and forget to return!
Now that you have Paloma’s marvelous take on grammar as “a way to attain beauty,” I’d like to add my own comments to the mix. I could barely sit still when I first read this essay, as I am a grammar maven. I’ve always thought that was a strange-sounding word, maven. It means “expert or connoisseur.” I’m by no means an expert, but I’m certainly a connoisseur.
Though perhaps not as classically beautiful as Fibonacci’s golden spiral in a rose or nautilus, each of grammar’s innate structures is attractive in its own way. Below are a few of my faves…
At the beginning of each semester, a fair number of my student writers relied on “The Sloppy Seven” sentence starters. In any given paragraph, most of their sentences began with The, I, He, She, They, We, As, or It. Each student had his or her favorites. Dave (name changed) started three out of five sentences in one essay with The. Ellie (name changed) started four out of six with I. So the students could see, at a glance, how frequently they used them, I highlighted the words they repeated.
For example: My niece is passionate about horses. She loves to brush them and braid their manes and tails. She doesn’t even complain about mucking out the stalls. She takes lessons twice a week and goes to competitions. My sister pays the bills, so she hopes my niece outgrows this hobby. I bet someday she’ll be buying a horse.
What makes a piece of writing outstanding? For fiction, there’s an engaging plot, layered characters, a theme that touches our hearts, scintillating dialogue. Nonfiction needs a novel premise and intriguing points backed up with well-researched information. Many authors can accomplish these. But what lifts an author from being merely a popular writer to a place among the all-time greats?
It’s the quality of the writing. What marks them as master wordsmiths is the way they manipulate words and use rhetorical techniques to expert effect. This may seem difficult to quantify, but we can identify some of the strokes that make the rest of us sigh, “I wish I’d written that!”
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
Let’s analyze a powerful excerpt from one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver. In The Poisonwood Bible, Leah’s missionary father has moved his family to the Congo. They have endured all manner of hardships, including fire ants, a flood, hunger, and little Ruth May contracting malaria after hiding her quinine pills. Now a green mamba has killed Ruth May. Leah narrates:
A honeycreeper sang from the bushes outside the window. It seemed impossible that an ordinary, bright day should be proceeding outside our house. Mother spread a small, soft hand onto hers and washed the fingers one at a time. She cradled and lifted the head to rinse it, taking care not to get the soapy water in Ruth May’s eyes. As she dried the limp blond hair with a towel, she leaned in close, inhaling the scent of my sister’s scalp. I felt invisible. By the force of my mother’s desire to conduct this ritual in private, she had caused me to disappear. Still, I couldn’t leave the room. After she dried and wrapped her baby in a towel she hummed quietly while combing out the tangles and plaiting the damp hair. Then she began to cut our mosquito netting into long sheets and stitch the layers together. At last we understood. She was making a shroud.
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