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A fully revised and updated edition with writing prompts and challenges in every chapter

Today’s writers need more spunk than Strunk: whether it''s the Great American e-mail, Madison Avenue advertising, or Grammy Award-winning rap lyrics, memorable writing must jump off the page. Copy veteran Constance Hale is on a mission to make creative communication, both the lyrical and the unlawful, an option for everyone.

With its crisp, witty tone, Sin and Syntax covers grammar’s ground rules while revealing countless unconventional syntax secrets (such as how to use—Gasp!—interjections or when to pepper your prose with slang) that make for sinfully good writing. Discover how to:

*Distinguish between words that are “pearls” and words that are “potatoes”

* Avoid “couch potato thinking” and “commitment phobia” when choosing verbs

* Use literary devices such as onomatopoeia, alliteration, and metaphor (and understand what you''re doing)

Everyone needs to know how to write stylish prose—students, professionals, and seasoned writers alike. Whether you’re writing to sell, shock, or just sing, Sin and Syntax—now celebrating 20 years in print—is the guide you need to improve your command of the English language.

Review

“Probably the hippest grammar guide ever written, this book shows how to write for results, wholesome or subversive.” — American Way
 
“This new grammar book is light-years ahead of what you’d read in eighth-grade English: With vivid, contemporary examples of what to do and what not to do, it’s fun to read.” — Charlotte Observer
 
“In ‘Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose,’ Constance Hale provides a plugged-in, cutting-edge alternative to the must prescriptions of Strunk and White. Here you will find an open-minded, exuberant approach to style that is intelligent and refreshing.” —Charles Harrington Elster, in The San Diego Union-Tribune
 
 “Hale has put together a writing/grammar manual that is fresh and fun. The basic rules are here, and they are well explained. The ‘sin’ from the title is partly advice on when and how to break these rules. The other sins are examples of oft-repeated mistakes…..this guide will help [readers] use effective and artful language. The examples range from Dr. Seuss books to John F. Kennedy''s speeches to commercials…. Easy to understand and appealing to a broad range of readers, this book is highly recommend for all libraries.” —Alisa J. Cihlar, Monroe P.L., WI, in Library Journal
 
“This is a wonderful how-to-book about writing stuff people want to read. Those who have studied the subject might think of Hale as a peacemaker between the Strunk and White tribe devoted to precision and the more entertaining descendants of Henry Mencken, full of energy and inventions. Nonwriters who just want advice that won’t put them to sleep will find sentences they can dance to.” —Make Maza in The Dallas Morning News
 
 “Constance Hale, in ‘Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose,’ is the first grammarian I’ve seen in a long time brave enough to revive diagramming.” —Ed Gray, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
 
 “Hale’s analyses of texts, from Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! To the jargon-laden prose of government and corporate documents, are full of insight because she lets the reader in on how language has the power to move us or confuse us.”  —Charles K. Bultman, in California Lawyer
 
 “Hale [is] good at explaining rules, and she provides a lot of examples of writing that really is sinfully good. Osmosis alone should help you here.” —Gary Kaufman, in Salon
 
"Move over, grumpy schoolmarms everywhere. Your time has come.  For the writer or wannabe,  Sin and Syntax  is an urgently needed, updated, and hip guide to modern language and writing. Nobody but Connie Hale could make the elements of 21st-century style so much fun." --Jon Katz, media critic and author of  Running to the Mountain and  Virtuous Reality

" Sin and Syntax is one of the rare books that recognizes--and even celebrates--the fact that good writing has little to do with ''rules'' and much to do with a true understanding of effective prose. Connie Hale provides us an invaluable service by showing us what works and what doesn''t in the real world, regardless of what the pedants say."--Jesse Sheidlower, Senior Editor, Random House Dictionaries, and author of "Jesse''s Word of the Day" column

About the Author

Constance Hale is the author of several books, including three on writing: Sin and Syntax; V ex, Hex, Smash, Smooch; and Wired Style, the one-of-a-kind guide to online English usage and geekspeak that was hailed by Newsweek as " The Chicago Manual of Style for the Millennium." A former editor at Wired, Hale has written for numerous publications including the San Francisco Examiner and The Microsoft Network. She has created maverick writing courses for people of all ages, including a popular seminar called "Grammar for Grownups," and currently teaches at U.C. Berkeley. She lives in Oakland, California.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Words

The French mime Etienne Decroux used to remind his students, "One pearl is better than a whole necklace of potatoes." What is true for that wordless art form applies equally to writing: well-crafted prose depends on the writer''s ability to discriminate between pearls and potatoes. Only some words are fit to be strung into sentences.

Great writers are meticulous with their pearls, sifting through piles of words and stringing only perfect specimens upon the thread of syntax. The careful execution of beautiful, powerful prose through beautiful, powerful words is guided by these principles:

Relish every word. True prose stylists carry on an impassioned, lifelong love affair with words, banishing bad words like so many banal suitors, burnishing the good ones till they shimmer. Be infatuated, be seduced, be obsessed.

But be smart about words, too. "All words are pegs to hang ideas on," wrote nineteenth-century essayist Henry Ward Beecher: words not linked to ideas are not worthy of writing-or reading. Once you''ve committed your words to paper (or to the screen), test each term. Does it carry your idea? Does it express, exactly, that once inchoate thought?

Sensitize yourself to denotation and connotation. Denotation, the dictionary definition of a word, refers to its explicit or literal meanings. Connotation, the suggestive power of a word, refers to its implicit or latent meanings. The denotations of peach (a single-seeded fruit with tangy yellowish pulp and downy skin that goes from yellow to red) and mango (a single-seeded fruit with a tangy yellowish pulp and firm skin mottled with greens, yellows, and reds) differ only slightly. But where peach summons up hot summers in Georgia and the cheeks of a Southern belle, mango conjures images of India and Mexico-and the paintings of Gauguin. The two fruits may be interchangeable in cooking, but wouldn''t it be a mistake to swap in mango when writing about, say, the dusty peach chambres of a grande dame with a thing for Louis XVI?

Beyond the sense of a word is its sensuousness: its sound, its cadence, its spirit. In turning a phrase, let the words build like a jazz riff, allowing the meanings and melodies of one word to play off the meanings and melodies of the words around it.

Be simple, but go deep. The exquisite "cutouts" of Matisse and elegant line drawings of Picasso came late in long careers of painstaking work and wild experimentation. In writing as in painting, simplicity often follows considerable torment. "People used to call me a good writer," mused John Ruskin, giant of the nineteenth-century essay. "Now they say I can''t write at all; because, for instance, if I think anybody''s house is on fire, I only say, ''Sir, your house is on fire.'' . . . I used to say, ''Sir, the abode in which you probably passed the delightful days of youth is in a state of inflammation.'' "

Verbose is not a synonym for literary. A member of the British Parliament once commented that if a bureaucrat had tried to express Lord Nelson''s "England expects every man to do his duty," posterity would have been left with England anticipates that as regards the current emergency personnel will face up to the issues and exercise appropriately the functions allocated to their respective occupation groups. Bureaucrats and business writers too often prefer big, words when they''re naming little things. Let''s not forsake short, common words that name big things-hope and pride, for example-or simple couplings that leave concrete impressions, like the red wheelbarrow. Shakespeare''s "sleep that knits up the ravell''d sleeve of care" uses simple words to go deep. No big-shot words, but a big idea.

It''s not enough, though, to be just simple. "Nine pounds where three are sufficient is obesity," said Frank Lloyd Wright. "But to eliminate expressive words in speaking or writing-words that intensify or vivify meaning-is not simplicity. It may be, or usually is, stupidity."

Henry David Thoreau pored over Walden, revising it again and again to find words that "intensify or vivify meaning." This journal entry left him unsatisfied:

I have travelled some in New England, especially in Concord, and I found that no enterprise was on foot which it would not disgrace a man to take part in. They seemed to be employed everywhere in shops and offices and fields. They seemed, like the Brahmins of the East, to be doing penance in a thousand, curious, unheard-of ways.

Setting upon those sentences, clearing the unnecessary words and repetitions, Thoreau crafted a single sentence with greater power:

I have travelled a good deal in Concord, and everywhere, in shops and offices and fields; the inhabitants have seemed to me to be doing penance in a thousand curious ways.

Thoreau manages to make his idea more specific by panning right in on Concord, paring down his repetitions (they, initially repeated twice, is swept away by the stronger inhabitants), and cutting more quickly to the final, stirring phrase.

Take risks. After having suffered the hyperactive red pens of schoolmarms and the hypercorrect rules of inflexible pedagogues, too many of us have retreated to the realm of the safe, the standard, and the vague. A "mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose," wrote George Orwell in "Politics and the English Language." "As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house."

Hidden in such prefab prose is a fear of going to the edge. But it''s romping around on the fringes of language that gives writing its frisson. The right word might be snagged off the street, snatched from another language, or hatched in the sand tray of the imagination. Dive into the polyglot English tongue, taking a cue from Walt Whitman, that high priest of the rambunctious:

I like limber, lasting, fierce words. I like them applied to myself-and I like them in newspapers, courts, debates, Congress. Do you suppose the liberties and the brawn of These States have to do only with delicate lady-words? with gloved gentleman words? Bad presidents, bad judges, bad clients, bad editors, owners of slaves, and the long ranks of Northern political suckers (robbers, traitors, suborned), monopo lists, infidels, . . . shaved persons, supplejacks, ecclesiastics, men not fond of women, women not fond of men, cry down the use of strong, cutting, beautiful rude words. [But] to the manly instincts of the People they will be forever welcome.

Whitman''s American English scarfs up words from other languages with a vengeance. If someone''s bugging you, you can go the Anglo-Saxon route and shun her; or you can avoid her (Latin); or you can eschew her (French). Or you tell her to get outta your face. Don''t shun slang, especially when it''s vivid and musical and fills a gap in the lexicon. Think of the words Shakespeare invented: the adjectives long-haired, lackluster, unqualitied, green-eyed, heartsick, and hot-blooded, the nouns want-wit, vinegar aspect, and wit-snapper, and the verbs in lines like "You unlace your reputation thus" or "The tears that spanieled me at heels." More modern neologists have kept up the mischief, giving us gems like snafu, snarky, muckety-mucks, chump change, copacetic, airhead, hacker, and, oh, babelicious.

A word not in the dictionary is not out of bounds. Isn''t the newly popular noun bloviator perfect to describe that dude who can''t get enough of his own voice? H. L. Mencken carried on about coinages bubbling up out of the American experience; one of his favorites, rubberneck, he called "almost a complete treatise on American psychology . . . [conveying the] boldness and contempt for ordered forms that are so characteristically American . . . the grotesque humor of the country, the delight in devastating opprobriums, and the acute feeling for the succinct and savory."

You tell ''em, H. L.!

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4.5 out of 54.5 out of 5
205 global ratings

Top reviews from the United States

James B. Pate
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Sin and Syntax
Reviewed in the United States on March 18, 2019
Constance Hale is a journalist and an author. This book is about how to craft effective prose. As the back cover states, “mere devotion to grammar commandments won’t make your prose shine.” Here are some thoughts: A. On the one hand, Hale promotes an... See more
Constance Hale is a journalist and an author. This book is about how to craft effective prose. As the back cover states, “mere devotion to grammar commandments won’t make your prose shine.”

Here are some thoughts:

A. On the one hand, Hale promotes an economy of words: getting rid of all those distracting adverbs, for example! Use a simple word like “use” rather than “utilization”! Hale is also critical of being so formal as to sound pompous, by, say, using “one” as a subject rather than “you” (i.e., “one must do such-and-such”). On the other hand, Hale wants writers to be imaginative and creative about the words that they do choose to use, as opposed to being banal. The prose that she advocates does not just tell but shows, enabling readers to see or to feel what is being described.

B. Hale overlaps with other writing manuals in that she encourages writers to keep their prose simple. At the same time, she qualifies the advice of other writing manuals, as when she states that writing manuals are often correct to discourage the use of the passive voice, but that in some cases the passive voice is appropriate.

C. Hale is sometimes a stickler for grammar, and at other times she is more liberal, as in her discussion about whether a writer can end a sentence with a preposition.

D. The book has a lot of political references. Political junkies like me will appreciate that! She even has a sarcastic comment about Donald Trump, before he became a politician.

E. In some cases, Hale could be dismissive, and I rolled my eyes at her corny put-downs of others’ prose, even as I understood why she was criticizing it.

F. The book confirmed something that I have long suspected, and that is that some of the rules that students are taught in school can hinder effective prose. For example, I have often felt as if I have to qualify everything that I say to avoid generalizations or misrepresentations of people’s position. Thus, I use what Hale calls “wimp verbs,” namely, “seem” and “appear.” The problem with this is that readers gravitate towards prose that manifests conviction and a sense of authority.

G. Hale shows what effective prose looks like and explains why it is effective. The book is not as helpful in explaining how writers can become imaginative enough to write it, however. It does not provide much of a road map.

H. I think that there is a place for formal prose, especially in academic writing. Formal prose—-as is four or five syllable words—-can command respect. But, even then, there is a place for getting rid of disruptive jargon.
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C. Daniel Southards
2.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Great book, to bad I can not read it.
Reviewed in the United States on October 9, 2018
This book is a good book, I know because I had the older edition. I wanted to buy this newer version to see what has changed. After I got and opened to read, I found that the type was way to small. Even with my glasses on and holding it at the closet level I can I still... See more
This book is a good book, I know because I had the older edition. I wanted to buy this newer version to see what has changed. After I got and opened to read, I found that the type was way to small. Even with my glasses on and holding it at the closet level I can I still kept getting thrown off by the tiny print. A good book ruined just to save a couple of dollars. When will they learn better quality sells more.
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ReviewerTop Contributor: Boxing
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Let your Hair down, but only after you wash it; or a Loose Approach to Form
Reviewed in the United States on April 10, 2021
When reviewing a book on the craft of writing, it isn''t enough to say whether you think it''s good or bad. You have to say whether or not it works for you. Two brilliant grammarians can disagree on some point, and what for one writer is a cardinal sin can be a great joy for... See more
When reviewing a book on the craft of writing, it isn''t enough to say whether you think it''s good or bad. You have to say whether or not it works for you. Two brilliant grammarians can disagree on some point, and what for one writer is a cardinal sin can be a great joy for another.

I think "Sin and Syntax" was recommended in Theodore Cheney''s "Getting the Words right," which is maybe my all-time favorite book on how to write.

"Sin and Syntax" is a primer on how to adhere to form without being a stuff shirt, and I found it to be (mostly) helpful. Hardly anyone likes diagramming sentences, or wants a refresher on things like predicates, but almost everyone needs it. Author Constance Hale makes this part of the book painless and is to be commended for it. Her advice on style is a nice mélange of the ornate and complex, like Faulkner, and the more direct, like Orwell or Hemingway. She comes from a journalistic background, and cites William Safire and Peggy Noonan to good effect. All good and well.

Less good and well is the portion of the book that incorporates emails and tweets and (honestly vapid) pop music as sources for the writer to mine in order to humanize their language. There are some lyrical dynamos in hip-hop, undoubtedly. Anyone who can rhyme "scared to death of me" with "hysterectomy," as Ghostface Killa does, deserves some kind of prize, but the raps she cites, are, in the delightful argot of the streets, wack.

I understand the desire to bring the bored kid in the back of the class into the lecture, and to make grammar and literature accessible for those who think it has nothing to offer them. But there comes a time when trying to accommodate those who don''t want to step up has the effect of actually dragging you down. Prole drift, I think Paul Fussell called it.

But this is just something that stuck in my craw, personally, and should be written off as a curmudgeon''s quibble by those eager to parse tweets for hidden haiku. Recommended.
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Seth Baron
2.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Long winded, laborious, and needlessly repetitive, making it seem awfully pretentious.
Reviewed in the United States on February 9, 2021
I guarantee you there is a better, simpler way of expressing the points the author is trying to make. For example, she constantly gives several strange, long-winded, long-format examples to support the singular point that your prose should be "humble", simplistic in format,... See more
I guarantee you there is a better, simpler way of expressing the points the author is trying to make. For example, she constantly gives several strange, long-winded, long-format examples to support the singular point that your prose should be "humble", simplistic in format, and easier to understand. It just felt pretentious as all hell. Writing (and reading) is supposed to be fun and interesting, not long and tiresome. She goes off on long-winded tangents long after explaining a point, which not only seems counterproductive, it seems hypocritical. I just have to put this thing down, I literally can''t with this ish anymore. Not for me. Your mileage may vary, though, I guess. But be warned.
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Lizelle H
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
It''s wonderful to have a book worthy of five starsto comment ...
Reviewed in the United States on July 12, 2015
It''s wonderful to have a book worthy of five starsto comment on. Constance Hale lives and breathes language, it is evident in this book and on her website. She makes it her business to inform people making use of the English language in writing, to correctly articulate what... See more
It''s wonderful to have a book worthy of five starsto comment on. Constance Hale lives and breathes language, it is evident in this book and on her website. She makes it her business to inform people making use of the English language in writing, to correctly articulate what they are putting across, and by using the correct grammar and punctuation. It is amazing to find, as a second-language English speaker, reading first-language English speakers'' written word how wrong they sometimes get things like apostrophes, plurals, wrong context, incomplete syntax, linguistic errors, to name but a few. This book is on my highly recommended list.
19 people found this helpful
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Blythe Wolber
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
The best part, for me
Reviewed in the United States on July 18, 2017
The best part, for me, is that she is obviously a grammar nerd, but without being holier-than-thou about it. Instead of telling you hard and fast rules, she mostly sticks to pointing out how various grammar choices will change the tone of your writing. The excerpts she... See more
The best part, for me, is that she is obviously a grammar nerd, but without being holier-than-thou about it. Instead of telling you hard and fast rules, she mostly sticks to pointing out how various grammar choices will change the tone of your writing. The excerpts she chooses clearly illustrate her passion for syntax (duh). It mostly just felt like I was talking to a friend about her favorite thing, and I enjoyed soaking up the passion vicariously.

I give this 5 stars but I am assuming readers know this isn''t going to be Harry Potter. It''s 5 stars for a book about grammar.
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Lily
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Amazingly pithy, helpful, and specific
Reviewed in the United States on July 14, 2021
This book is a delight. Its advice is extremely specific and easy to apply, and it works wonders. It''s full of clear and usually clever examples to make its lessons clear and easy to understand. I teach writing and I write professionally, and I return to this book every... See more
This book is a delight. Its advice is extremely specific and easy to apply, and it works wonders. It''s full of clear and usually clever examples to make its lessons clear and easy to understand. I teach writing and I write professionally, and I return to this book every year. Great for novices and advanced writers alike.
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Steve R. Yeager
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A Fresh Take
Reviewed in the United States on September 13, 2013
This was not the traditional Strunk and White style book. Instead, it offered concrete examples for different parts of speech and sentence structure. While a lot of the information is basic, it does offer a good refresher course in grammar and structure, but not only that,... See more
This was not the traditional Strunk and White style book. Instead, it offered concrete examples for different parts of speech and sentence structure. While a lot of the information is basic, it does offer a good refresher course in grammar and structure, but not only that, it offers advice that most grammar teachers would not dare tell you. Trust your voice. Revel in the joy of language.

And all that I appreciated. I subtracted one star because the examples given in the text I found to be odd and I couldn''t quite put what was stated in the instructional parts of the book with the quality of the examples. So many came from political speech, some from odd sources, and others from books I have no desire to ever read (Hemingway, being a noted exception). So it is hard to blame the author here as the material was subjective and some people may love it. I did not.

The other star I sadly had to deduct due to the price of the book. Yes, I know it is usually not in the author''s control, and I might be unfairly judging based on price, but still, the e-book was over $10 (when I purchased) for material that is perhaps worth about $5. At $5, I would wholeheartedly recommend this book.

But, being that this is Amazon, and I wrote the original review on Goodreads, I gave this book four stars here.
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Top reviews from other countries

Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Making grammar understandable
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on April 5, 2015
I was force-fed grammar at school by an unpleasant teacher and even the word makes me cringe. However, this was a recommended text for a Masters in Professional Writing I recently started and the author has done an excellent job of making grammar accessible. Her writing is...See more
I was force-fed grammar at school by an unpleasant teacher and even the word makes me cringe. However, this was a recommended text for a Masters in Professional Writing I recently started and the author has done an excellent job of making grammar accessible. Her writing is witty and engaging.
One person found this helpful
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Morrison Stone
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
interesting title.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 24, 2016
a very helpful book. I sometimes struggle with punctuation now and again and what I have read of the book very, very, very helpful.
One person found this helpful
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Ms P M Osborne
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Sin and Syntax
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on January 9, 2014
Excellent book, very good for struggling writers and teachers who want to help their students with grammar etc. also enjoyable
2 people found this helpful
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K P C Collins
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Useful
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 27, 2016
Very interesting and useful to writers
One person found this helpful
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Amazon Customer freddy f.
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Great
Reviewed in Canada on March 1, 2019
Great
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Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale

Sin wholesale and Syntax: lowest How to Craft Wicked Good Prose outlet sale