25 Great Sentences and How They Got That Way
Geraldine Woods (WM Norton, 2020), 336pp, £19.99
ISBN 978 1 324 00485 1
Reviewed by Joanne Osborn
This book, aimed at both writers and those who love language, provides insight into the structures of sentences and particularly into how a good sentence can become a great one. The premise of taking 25 ‘great’ sentences to study might have been limiting, but the author, Geraldine Woods, explores each sentence in context, giving pertinent details and insight, and uses numerous notable sentences from other sources to illustrate similar techniques. The ‘featured’ sentence becomes more of a jumping-off point. The author’s assertion that ‘a beautiful sentence stops you cold’ will ring true for many, and this principle sets the tone of the book. The author looks for sentences that tap into creativity but do not ‘aspire to novelty’.
The book is divided into five parts to order the chosen sentences – structure, diction, sound, connection/comparison and extremes – and then into 25 chapters, each one discussing a featured sentence and its technique (for example, parallelism, coinage, onomatopoeia, synaesthesia, simplicity). All manner of texts are used to source the 25 sentences – fiction, non-fiction, speeches, plays, songs, films, poetry and more. Some sentences from figures like JF Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf may be eagerly expected, but others are gratefully received, such as those from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Watty Piper and Yoda (yes, Yoda).
Woods is engaging and entertaining, a self-described ‘language enthusiast’, and her dry wit lifts both the book and the reader’s spirits. Her choice of which sentences to include apparently involved a few arguments – with herself. Indeed, it is hard to imagine sifting through hundreds of literary and cultural sources to then select only 25 sentences. However, Woods’ knowledge of literature and other sources and her expertise in writing are demonstrated wonderfully by the additional sentences she provides to continue exploring the structure, style and word choice of the featured sentences. One of my favourite sentences is ‘Aim for grace’ (from Ann Beattie’s Learning to Fall; ‘Extremes’ section, ‘Simplicity’ chapter). This beautifully concise sentence, stripped of anything extraneous, is the epitome of simplicity.
The shaping of a sentence is something that experienced editors may do instinctively, but this book gives structure to the instinct and technique, explaining how to create the desired effect. I found the book fascinating, with its range and breadth of sources and its easy-to-read dissection of sentences and how they can be improved upon. Background history and interesting details add to an enjoyable read. One item that tickled me was about the introduction of a ‘percontation point’ in the 16th century by Henry Denham – ‘a sort of backward question mark’ to signal a rhetorical question. Sadly, its use died out, although a few people are keen for its revival, renaming it an ‘irony mark’ to come before a question that has some bite to it!
On a practical note, each chapter has a section called ‘For the writer’, with follow-up exercises and more information for practising sentence craft and techniques specific to the chapter’s featured sentence. The instruction ranges from filling in the blanks and playing around with provided sentences to suggestions for creative writing. For easy reference, the index lists authors and sentence sources.
The book kept me engaged throughout, delving into literature, poetry, films and songs, and certainly teaching me more about all of them. I thoroughly enjoyed it, both as a reader and an editor. It was a pleasure to rummage around in the sentences of authors and sources that I had met and those that I had yet to meet. Perhaps Yoda deserves the last, apt, word: ‘Much to learn, you still have’ (Star Wars character created by George Lucas; ‘Structure’ section, ‘Reversed Sentences’ chapter).