First You Write a Sentence. The elements of reading, writing … and life.

Joe Moran (Penguin, 2019), 240pp, £9.99
ISBN 978 0 24 197851 1

Reviewed by Carrie O’Grady

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In our TikTok, Snapchat world, the good old-fashioned sentence barely gets a look-in. This book is about ‘why it is worth taking pains over a sentence, in a world where everyone seems to be speaking at once and finishing each other’s sentences for them’.

Moran, a social historian and the author of Queuing for Beginners, originally set out to write a ‘style guide by stealth’: a book’s worth of tips on masterful sentence writing, masquerading as an entertaining stroll through the flower gardens of the world’s great literature. He admits, though, that the mask became the reality, and the finished book turned out to be more of a ‘love letter to the sentence’ than a practical guide. Indeed, his admiration for a well-turned sentence knows no bounds. Nearly every page gives an example of an artful construction, or a restatement of the sentence’s fundamental importance. You may think it’s just a bunch of words strung together, but no. ‘The sentence is where we make the briefest of senses out of this mad, beautiful, befuddling mess: life.’

Editors, so often striving for clarity, may find it refreshing that Moran does not believe a sentence should be straightforward above all else. A little ambiguity is welcome, so as to intrigue and stimulate the reader, drawing them on smoothly to the next sentence. He cites some research that backs him up. Neuroscientists who scanned the brains of volunteers in two groups – one reading Shakespeare in the original, the other in a simplified version – found that the Bard’s convoluted phrasing generated more sparks among the synapses than did the plain phrasings. Perhaps the politicians’ Radio 4 mantra, ‘Let me be absolutely clear on this’, is ill-advised.

This is above all a book of digressions. The idea of the sentence provides so many jumping-off points, and Moran jumps with glee. He considers the relative merits of en dashes in ranges (1939–45), of words derived from Old English versus words derived from Greek or Latin, short words, long words, the vowel, the consonant … So deeply does he delve into the minutiae of the written word that I half expected him to give an opinion on whether one should type in a serif font or a sans serif. Had he done so, it would have been erudite, witty and no doubt convincing. That said, there are times when he seems unnecessarily judgemental. Why praise the full stop so lavishly, but trash the semicolon? Surely all punctuation marks have their place?

Moran is one of those writers who, thanks to a prodigious memory or a hyper-efficient filing system, is able to scatter quotes from great talents liberally across his manuscript. Here, Van Gogh cosies up to Simone Weil, Coco Chanel to Ken Dodd. He doesn’t limit himself to the big names. We knew there was much to be learned from Orwell on writing, but it’s a pleasant surprise to hear from Dean Hachamovitch, the inventor of Microsoft Word’s Autocorrect function (may his name live on). Even the smallest quotes are a delight, such as one from the poet Mark Doty, who calls metaphor ‘frosting on the cake of sense’. The book includes one of those marvellous bibliographies that makes you long to read every op. cit.

Some of Moran’s quotations are, again, digressive – fascinating, but acting as eddies in the stream. This is not a book with a strong narrative direction. Moran sets out his case for the importance of the sentence early on, and circles back to it throughout, wheeling through various diverting aspects rather than building an argument to a conclusion. But does it matter? His musings are so thoughtfully selected, and beautifully presented, that perhaps there’s no need for them to add up to a whole greater than the sum.

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