July 22:  Syntax Sorcery Day

Today is the birthday of author Tom Robbins.  Born in North Carolina in 1932, Robbins attended college at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Washington.  Including service in the U. S. Air Force as a meteorologist, he also worked as a journalist, radio host, and art critic. Robbins moved to La Conner, Washington, in 1970 and since that time has written eight novels.

Robbins’ best known novel is his first, Another Roadside Attraction (1971).  As explained by reviewer and Robbins fan Mike Stone, this novel, and just about everything Robbins writes, defies easy description:

Most of the people I know who are now avid Robbins readers began that life baffled and confused by his prose. I include myself in that group. But after trying and giving up and trying and giving up several times, all of the sudden something clicks and you realize that he is a literary samurai (1).

Tom Robbins.jpgProbably Robbins’ most admired gift is his ability to craft sentences.  As critic Jason Sheehan put it, other writers look up to Robbins, both literally and metaphorically:  “He’s the mountain every working writer surveys when they’re trying to put a sentence together that’s more complicated than subject-verb-predicate” (2).

As Robbins explained in an interview in 2012, when combined with care, words, phrases, and clauses can create something magical:

Certain individual words do possess more pitch, more radiance, more shazam! than others, but it’s the way words are juxtaposed with other words in a phrase or sentence that can create magic.  Perhaps literally.  The word “grammar,” like its sister word “glamour,” is actually derived from an old Scottish word that meant “sorcery.”  When we were made to diagram sentences in high school, we were unwittingly being instructed in syntax sorcery, in wizardry.  We were all enrolled at Hogwarts.  Who knew? (3)

Special insight into Robbins’ sorcery is provided by Michael Dare:

When he starts a novel, it works like this. First he writes a sentence. Then he rewrites it again and again, examining each word, making sure of its perfection, finely honing each phrase until it reverberates with the subtle texture of the infinite. Sometimes it takes hours. Sometimes an entire day is devoted to one sentence, which gets marked on and expanded upon in every possible direction until he is satisfied. Then, and only then, does he add a period (4).

Today’s Challenge:  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
What are some examples of three-word combinations that form complete simple sentences, such as “The sun rose”?  How might you expand such a kernel sentence to make it exactly twenty words long?  Try your hand at some syntax sorcery by taking a three-word kernel sentence and expanding it in a variety of ways so that it has exactly twenty words.  Working within these constraints will force you, like Robbins, to pay careful attention to every word, phrase, and clause.  In Robbins’ words, “Challenge every single sentence for lucidity, accuracy, originality, and cadence. If it doesn’t meet the challenge, work on it until it does.”  Write at least three different 20-word expansions of your three-word kernel.


Three-word kernel:  The sun rose.

Twenty-word Sentences:

The sun, a blazing ball of fire in the sky, rose triumphantly into the welcoming arms of the patient morning.

As a single ripple glided across the lake, the run rose, bathing the scenery in hues of pink and orange.

Even though yesterday Mary dumped him and he failed both his English and math tests, today the sun still rose.

For an added challenge, try to write using some rhetorical flourishes, such as metaphors, similes, personification, alliteration, parallelism, adjectives out of order, or hyphenated modifiers.  Also try a variety of phrases, clauses, and sentence forms.  Here’s a menu from which to mix and match:

Appositive Phrase

Participial Phrase

Absolute Phrase

Adverb Clause

Adjective Clause

Periodic Sentence

Cumulative Sentence

Quotation of the day:  I love mayonnaise! I eat so much they’re gonna send me to the Mayo Clinic. I think it’s definitely a watershed food. People who don’t go for it are destined for a Miracle Whip. They don’t know what they’re missing. Actually, people ought to be aware that Miracle Whip, which isn’t real mayonnaise at all, is a crutch for people who aren’t strong enough to handle the real thing. Mayonnaise is the one product that’s better than homemade. This is an unsolicited testimonial. I always thought Cinco de Mayo was for mayonnaise. I celebrate it every year. -Tom Robbins


1-Stone, Mike.  Review of “Another Roadside Attraction



4- Michael Dare, in “How to Write Like Tom Robbins” in The Spirit Of Writing : Classic and Contemporary Essays Celebrating the Writing Life (2001) edited by Mark Robert Waldman, p. 41.


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