End of the year! Time to roundup books like horses, corralling them in “best of” lists: fiction, nonfiction, children’s, young adult, illustrated/art, and more. But how about by syntax? As someone attuned to language and grammar, I’m going to round up the books I loved this year by syntax—the grammatical structure (sentences, prepositional phrases, clauses, and the like) of their titles. Let’s see if there any patterns.


Among the books I blogged about this year were The Light Between Oceans, Bring Up the Bodies, A Discovery of Witches, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.


What’s going on with the wording in each title? Am I attracted to certain types of titles? Do editors and publishing marketing departments veer toward certain syntactical structures?


Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, one of my favorites, is a full sentence—a  question with a subject (you), verb ([did] go), adverb (where) and end punctuation (?).  The book is fiction, a hugely enjoyable farce about a daughter’s search for her AWOL mother. I see that other books I enjoyed are questions, too:

Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel’s memoir about her mother, and Jeannette Winterson’s amazing story of growing up gay with a religious fanatic mother in England, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?  Hmm, these are all books by women, about mother-daughter relationships…could it be the only way to hint at that kind of complexity is with full sentences? Whoops, Hilary Mantel’s fabulous fiction Bring Up the Bodies  is an imperative, while Junot Diaz’s eagerly awaited novel This Is How You Lose Her is a statement, and his book is about men, their machismo, relationships with each other, and pursuit of women.  So much for that pattern. But I am pleased to see examples of each type of sentence construction: declarative (statement), interrogative (question), and imperative (command)!


Another common pattern: one-word titles. The outstanding Norwegian thriller writer Jo Nesbo often titles his novels with single words: Snowman, Leopard, and this year’s Phantom. In 2012 the nonfiction category included Christopher Hitchens’s Mortality, sadly enough, both as book title and as actual event.


Some of the novels I wrote about were titled simply with nouns plus prepositional phrases: The Light Between Oceans   and A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1). It seems to be a common structure for fiction: the highly praised The Age of Miracles  and The Fault in Our Stars  fall into the same pattern, as do other very successful books such as Stephen King’s The Wind Through the Keyhole, Ken Follett’s Winter of the World, and Shadow of Night, the sequel to Discovery of Witches.


Nonfiction titles, on the other hand, do go on. Even when authors and marketing departments can keep to one word, like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Susan Cain’s Quiet, no one seems able to resist adding a whole string of syntactical structures in the subtitles, Strayed adds From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail to Wild, and we even see a whole noun clause, complete with subject (world), verb phrase (can’t stop), a gerund as object (talking) and relative pronoun (that) in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.


Finally, the word power has a lot of power in titles I chose to blog on, it seems, from the power of Quiet‘s introverts to The Power of Habit and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. But it is the power of art, the strength and attraction of a well-constructed turn of phrase or stark, unexpected single word, that often makes us pick up one of these very good books—something I highly recommend doing as 2012 comes to a close.


Are there any common patterns I’ve missed? What was your favorite title of 2012?

by Fricka on ‎12-31-2012 09:53 AM

Well I'm a mystery aficianado and a sucker for puns, so here are some of MY favorite titles for 2012:

Read and Buried by Erika Chase; Book, Line, and Sinker by Jenn McKinlay; If Hooks Could Kill by Betty Hechtman I'm also noting that these are all phrases, but I  don't know if that says anything about my syntax preference or not. Most puns, after all, are usually based on short phrases or idioms.

by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎01-01-2013 01:07 PM

Ah, I love puns and such in book titles, too, but my long training in publishing has taught me they are hard to get by the marketing departments. It's word lovers like the editors (and lots of readers!) who receive them with delight rather than groans.

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