The ambiguous Oxford comma

April 21, 2017

The more finicky a distinction, the more fanatically people take sides over it. The Oxford comma (aka serial comma, series comma, etc.) is a case in point. Some people – often copy editors or writers – adopt it as a tribal badge and commit to it so completely that it becomes part of their identity. They become true believers.

Being a true believer means adhering to the faith: swearing, hand on stylebook, that the Oxford comma is the best option, end of story. ‘It eliminates ambiguity,’ they assert without qualification. Many claim to use it ‘religiously’, or they convey their devotion to it in analogous secular terms.

Either way, this is dogma, and like all dogma it masks a more complicated (and more interesting) truth.

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The Samuel Johnson notes: A very nice word

April 5, 2017

Everyone who uses language has their crutch words. These personal clichés fill a gap in common contexts, giving us a break from the burden of originality. Many are adjectives: academics have noteworthy, campus kids have awesome, and I have nice.

Almost anything positive could invite it: nice tune, nice scarf, nice work, nice idea. I also use nice in its narrower sense meaning subtle, fine-grained: a nice distinction. Both senses are familiar to modern ears. Go back a few centuries, though, and the word becomes a chameleonic stranger.

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A sea of language at full boil

March 10, 2017

Jonathan Lethem is an author whose back catalogue I’ve been slowly, happily pecking away at. His protean, genre-blending style will not appeal to all tastes, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the few I’ve read. The most recent of these is Motherless Brooklyn, which won a couple of awards as the century turned. I single it out here because its narrator is obsessed with language.

Lionel Essrog is an orphan now grown up, more or less, and he has Tourette’s syndrome. (In his acknowledgements Lethem mentions Oliver Sacks, whose book An Anthropologist on Mars has a chapter on Tourette’s.) Lethem’s depiction of the syndrome is sympathetic and thoughtful, but he is alive too to its comic and dramatic possibilities, and the novel is often funny, tense, or otherwise affecting.

Lionel’s Tourette’s has its own particular contours, characterised by compulsive counting, ticcing, tapping (people’s shoulders, especially), kissing, collar-fixing, copying other people’s utterances and actions, and a kind of self-fuelling wordplay that draws on words heard or seen and then cannibalises itself unstoppably.

Early in the novel, staking out a meditation centre with a fellow orphan, the word Zendo catches Lionel’s eye and mind:

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Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist

February 22, 2017

The politics of English usage can show up anywhere. I was reading Michael Connelly’s 2010 crime novel The Reversal – gradually working my way through his back catalogue – when I found it depicting the spread of prescriptivism.

LAPD detective Harry Bosch and his 14-year-old daughter, Madeline, are at breakfast:

He checked his watch. It was time to go.

‘If you’re done playing with your food you can put your bowl in the sink. We have to get going.’

Finished, Dad. You should use the correct word.’

‘Sorry about that. Are you finished playing with your cereal?’

‘Yes.’

‘Good. Let’s go.’

Harry leaves Madeline with Sue Bambrough, her vice principal, for babysitting. He takes the opportunity to consult with the teacher:

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“We must write for our own time”

December 15, 2016

A few words from Sartre:

A book has its absolute truth in its own time. It is lived like a riot or a famine, with much less intensity of course, and by fewer people, but in the same way. It is an emanation of intersubjectivity, a living bond of rage, hatred, or love between those who have produced it and those who receive it. If it gains ground, thousands of people reject it and deny it: we all know very well that to read a book is to rewrite it. At the time it is first a panic, an escape, or a courageous affirmation; at the time it is a good or a bad action. Later, when the time has died, it will become relative; it will become a message. But the judgement of posterity will not invalidate the opinions men had of it during its lifetime. . . .

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The Time Traveller: a rare-books magazine

December 12, 2016

time-traveller-1-rare-books-magazine-cork-irelandAmong the projects I worked on this winter was to copyedit a new, independent Irish magazine called The Time Traveller. It comes from the bookstore of the same name, which has three outlets in the west of Ireland: Westport, County Mayo; Skibbereen, County Cork; and Cork city.

The Time Traveller’s bookshop specialises in rare books, and the magazine, a quarterly, does likewise, its topics reaching into art, philosophy, history, publishing, poetry, culture, music, education, and literature in general. As its editor Holger Smyth writes in his editorial:

There is no point in starting a shy publication that looks pretty and is full of words but has nothing to say. Would it be wise to pretend everything is fine when the whole world is on the run? This quarterly will try to shine a light on important and forgotten publications, political ideas that should have been implemented, philosophies that could have made a difference, authors who could have been honoured, voices that should have been heard.

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Metaphors, mountains, and magic

December 6, 2016

This post is a mixum-gatherum of bits from books I’ve read over the last while. First up is an arresting passage from ‘Vertigo’ by Joanna Walsh, in her short story collection of the same name:

At the turn of the road, willing the world to continue a little space, there is a man, a woman, and a child. They are not tourists: there are few here. From the outside, the man is greater than the woman, who is greater than the child. The child is brighter than the woman, who is brighter than the man. Of their insides we know nothing, because we cannot understand the words that turn those insides out. I grasp at words in this language with other languages I know, languages other than the one I mostly speak, as though one foreignness could solve another.

I love the idea of using language as a tool not to communicate directly but to unlock another language, like an inoculation.

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