The Transitive Vampire
A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed


The Transitive Vampire is Karen Elizabeth Gordon's 1984 followup to her short 1983 book on proper English punctuation, The Well-Tempered Sentence.

Gordon continued her prolific writings on language with two more books in 1997: Torn Wings and Faux Pas, concerning commonly misused words and phrases, and The Disheveled Dictionary, a book on vocabulary.

The Transitive Vampire focuses on sentence construction and the different parts of speech. Each point of usage is accompanied with expressive example sentences ranging in tone from gleeful to macabre. The book is also liberally sprinkled with black-and-white illustrations (primarily 19th century woodcuts) of foppish men, hideous beasts, and naked women. The combined effect is of a perverse Victorian librarian, quoting Gothic horror and flashing a little skin, hoping to frighten, shock, and cajole a little learning into you.

The quality and rich detail of Gordon's expressive sentences are clearly the selling points of the book. They blow textbook standards like "The red dog is under the table" straight out of the water. In the first chapter, Gordon illustrates compounds as follows:

A compound predicate, or compund verb, is the happy issue of two or more verbs that are joined by and, or, or nor and that belong to the same subject:
The recluse groveled before the mannequin and
kissed the hem of her slip.
She wriggled in acknowledgement or writhed in
uncalled-for shame.
The debutante squatted and pondered her
meaningless life.
The werewolf howled piteously and sought
comfort in the lap of his wife.
His huge, calm, intelligent hands swerved
through the preliminaries and wrestled with
her confusion of lace.
It neither soothed the unrecorded regrets nor
averted the impending doom.


Later, Gordon spices up that pet peeve of everyone's grade school grammar teachers, split infinitives:

Don't split your infinitives. They'd rather remain intact.

WRONG: He begged her to indecently think of him.
RIGHT: He begged her to think indecently of him.
RIGHT: He begged her to think of him indecently .


The Transitive Vampire is far from complete; not every nuance of the language is covered. There are even some obvious omissions. For example, in the discussion of relative pronouns, Gordon says

"Which refers only to animals and to inanimate, unmoving things. That refers to animals and things, and sometimes to persons."

Fine, but Gordon neglects to give the reader any guidance on choosing between "that" and "which" ("That" is typically followed by a limiting clause, like "The kittens that are cute must be given away," meaning, the cute kittens, but possibly not the ugly ones, must be given away. "Which" is followed by a qualifying clause that does not select or qualify its antecedent, as in "The kittens, which are cute, must be given away," meaning, granted, the kittens are cute, but regardless they must be given away.) Gordon does include correct examples of both usages but neglects to point out this key difference between them.

To nitpick further: the index, while extensive, is not particularly thorough. You could easily finish the book in one sitting, leaving you thirsty for more. In 1993 a hardcover edition was released, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, adding dozens of pages of additional material, and undoubtedly making up for some of the faults in the original edition.

But that was hardly necessary -- the original more than makes up for its own faults with its pervasive charm. This is not a book for the reference shelf, or one for thumbing through at four in the morning with a deadline just hours away. This is a book to read on a lazy weekend afternoon, to leave on the coffee table or in the bathroom(!), to peruse slowly in a reclined position to get yourself in the mood to write. Gordon's perfect and imaginative sentences are ideally suited for lighting the fires of poetry -- and grammatical precision -- in your breast. Yes, the two can coexist.


More examples of Gordon's prose:

She incorrigibly gave herself over to idle and lascivious pleasures.
The robot and the dentist tangoed beneath the stars.
The last piece of his little game having fallen deftly into place, the impostor gloated with slyly glimmering eyes.
In her rickety garret, which was crawling with rats, she lay dreaming of biceps and divorce.
One way to find a sweetheart is to put an ad in the paper; another is to wait and see what the cat drags in.