The Syntax of Cats

Every move a cat makes is elegant, deliberate.  The moments of awkwardness are so rare, and the cat appears so discomfited when they occur, that I have to laugh, unkind as it is.  What if we as writers, in the pacing of our own writing, mimicked the cat’s exquisite self-control?  What if the syntax of our sentences were just as aligned with our intentions?

   Dogs don’t notice when they put their paws in the quiche.  Dogs don’t know where they begin and end.

   Cats know exactly where they begin and end.  When they walk slowly out the door that you are holding open for them, and pause, leaving their tail just an inch or two inside the door, they know it.  They know you have to keep holding the door open.  That is why their tail is there.  It is a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship.    

                                                                         Ursula LeGuin, The Wave in the Mind

How vividly the cat appears in this short passage by LeGuin.  Even the way her sentences move–or rather, stop moving–gives us the cats’ intentions.  Her language starts to get repetitive:  “They know it,” she says.  “They know you have to keep holding the door open.”  “That is why their tail is there,” she explains, then adds, “It is a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship.”  For a moment, you wonder about these statements, sounding so abrupt, almost awkward, after the elegance of the initial sentence, but then you realize it’s not what the sentences say so much as how they land, stopping the flow–it’s the pause at the end of each that starts to become insistent.  A stillness is being enforced, and for as long as the graceful cat decides to linger, maintaining her connection, the door must be held ajar.

As LeGuin moves us along and keeps us reading, I can’t help but feel that she herself is the cat, intent on maintaining a relationship, as all of us are when we write, standing before the open door of our reader’s mind.  With all our passion and our art, we look for the sentences that will keep that door open, from one moment to the next.  And the next.

And syntax can help.  It never ceases to fascinate me:  the power of form.  The syntax we choose—the way we arrange information into clauses and phrases, creating sentences that are simple or complex, long or short—is itself communicative.   Our sentences are malleable as clay, and there’s no reason not to make them as expressive as possible, shaping their contours to fit our message.  Sentences can pirouette.  They can soar.  Or they can point straight up like the tail of a cat, hovering in the doorway, creating a point of focus, a moment of shared understanding.

Virginia Tufte’s The Artful Sentence is the best book out there if you want to get intimate with the English sentence and all that it can do (and the book is chockful of examples).  Even if you find yourself skimming certain sections, make sure you get to the final section on mimesis.


The Syntax of Cats — 2 Comments

  1. I’m so glad you’ve started this newsletter, Karin. I loved the description of the cat, the link to the poet and the recommendation of this book. I will hunt out “Artful Sentences” today.

  2. Hi Karin – thanks for this newsletter. It is good to hear from you, and lovely to discover some new poetry… With love, April