Ghostly fetches and dialect features

November 7, 2013

This should have gone out at Halloween, but anyway. Based on my regard for Daniel Woodrell I was given a copy of The Cove by Ron Rash, and the recommendation was fully justified: the story is engrossing and poetic, lingering in memory. Set in rural North Carolina, it’s also rich in local dialect, and contains an unusual sense of the word fetch:

There were stories of hunters who’d come into the cove and never been seen again, a place where ghosts and fetches wandered.

I had to look it up to remember it. The American Heritage Dictionary says it’s a ghost, apparition, or doppelgänger, calling it chiefly British, while the OED defines it more narrowly as “the apparition, double, or wraith of a living person”. Its etymology is uncertain, though it may derive from the older compound fetch-life, which referred to a messenger that came to fetch a dying person’s soul.

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Book review: Punctuation..?

September 18, 2012

User design, a book design company based in the UK, kindly sent me a copy of their recently reissued book on punctuation, simply titled Punctuation..? Or not so simply: shouldn’t those two full stops be a three-dot ellipsis? Maybe it was intended to get editors talking.

More booklet than book, Punctuation..? consists of 35 illustrated pages aimed at a “wide age range (young to ageing) and intelligence (emerging to expert)”. It’s an attractive pamphlet that covers the usual punctuation marks – comma, dashes and co. – and some less familiar ones, such as guillemets [« »], interpunct [·], and pilcrow [¶].

The book’s advice is basic and broadly helpful. General readers won’t mind its traditional definition of a noun as “a word used as the name of a person, place or thing”, though to me this everyday description is dated and deficient. The prose sometimes jars: “As with many rules, there is always an exception”. Well, which is it?

There are more serious shortcomings. Comma splices are not always errors, but they oughtn’t to appear in a book on punctuation without comment; this one has a few. It says em and en dashes are “longer than the hyphen (-) which is not a dash”, which implies some hyphens are dashes. This construction recurs. (See my post on that vs. which.)

For clarity, some words should be in inverted commas or italics (“the word to”), and some shouldn’t (“What about ‘rent’?”). “[D]iscreetly indented paragraphs” is probably meant to be discretely. Semicolons are not the mark “least used in many modern books” – what about pilcrows and interpuncts? – and there’s more semicolon trouble in this example of exclamation mark use:

Ah! you are wrong, once she sees me cleaned up; washed and shaved, she will find me irresistible!

It suggests that when she is washed and shaved, she will find the speaker irresistible. The first comma is also problematic. The same page says exclamation marks are used to “demonstrate hope or regret”, as in “I hope Betty can come!” No: the word hope does that. Elsewhere, words are repeated (“ready to to feed”), omitted (“at end of this sentence”), and questionably hyphenated (hook-up as a verb).

Punctuation..? has a sense of fun, particularly evident in the sometimes witty sketches that enliven the book’s already-pleasant appearance. Their style may be seen in the image below. The tone is light and friendly, some of the marks are well described, and there is welcome coverage of technical marks, such as prime symbols, which would often be overlooked in a work of this type.

Unfortunately, these virtues are overshadowed by the slip-ups in grammar, style, spelling, punctuation, and fact. Other reviewers have been less critical, but I don’t know if they failed to spot the problems that bothered me, or just didn’t care. Punctuation..? is a nice idea for a book, but it needs and deserves  more work and better editing.

Oh, the Splices You’ll See!

April 29, 2010

I am such a good man, at bottom, such a good man, how is it that nobody ever noticed it? – Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

In a previous post I explained what comma splices are, and how and when to avoid them. Now I’d like to share a few more examples of their appearance in edited text (they are spliced into this post), and to discuss some of the advice and commentary on their use.

I had worn the wrong shoes, they had heels. – Moy McCrory, The Wrong Vocation

The blue, igloo-roof over the rock went away to a vast distance, the visible world expanded with a leap. – William Golding, Pincher Martin

Some people describe comma splices as an error, a horror, a nightmare, an insult — something terrible, to be dreaded and denounced. We are urged to spurn them, to expunge them swiftly and severely as though they were insidious “germs” in our otherwise unsullied text. Even when they are acknowledged to be occasionally acceptable, we are told to avoid them to be on the safe side. “[O]nly do it if you’re famous,” Lynne Truss warns. Leave it to the experts.

This kind of advice can be helpful to learners, or writers who want a quick yes–no answer. But it also tends to be simplistic and misleading, failing to reflect the subtlety and complexity with which skilled writers consciously use comma splices. Moreover, when authorities dismiss certain techniques out of hand without mentioning the breadth of their usage in various stylistic and historical contexts, they can perpetuate fear of making mistakes and ignorance of how language works.

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Comma splice

November 3, 2008

Before I discuss comma splices I will briefly explain run-on sentences, since there is some overlap in definition. A run-on sentence – also known as a fused sentence – is a sentence in which two or more independent clauses run together, i.e. the clauses are not joined by a conjunction or by punctuation:

The tests were inconclusive I didn’t know what to do next.

Everyone was ready however there were unforeseen delays.

Such sentences don’t stop, or pause properly, when they should. Neither do sentences with a comma splice, which occurs when two or more independent clauses are joined only by a comma:

The tests were inconclusive, I didn’t know what to do next.

Everyone was ready, however there were unforeseen delays.

Some grammarians consider comma splices as a type of run-on sentence; others distinguish them but discuss them together.

The comma splice is also called a comma error, comma blunder, and comma fault, but I find these terms too judgemental. Comma splices can be fine in fiction, poetry, letters and informal writing in general, where they often reflect spoken English and join clauses that are short, connected by subject or content, and unlikely to be misconstrued:

It wasn’t broken, it needed new batteries.
The shops were all closed, I couldn’t buy milk.

Commas are weak marks: they can separate elements within a clause, but they are not always considered strong enough to separate independent clauses. Comma splices (and run-on sentences) can draw readers into a second independent clause before they know that the first one is finished.

It is therefore preferable in many kinds of formal writing to separate such clauses with a conjunction or a stronger punctuation mark: a colon, semicolon, full stop or dash will supply the necessary pause. Simple rearrangements are another option.

It wasn’t broken, but it needed new batteries.
It wasn’t broken – it needed new batteries.

The shops were all closed, so I couldn’t buy milk.
As the shops were all closed, I couldn’t buy milk.
The shops were all closed; I couldn’t buy milk.
I couldn’t buy milk because the shops were all closed.

The tests were inconclusive, and I didn’t know what to do next.
Since the tests were inconclusive, I didn’t know what to do next.
The tests were inconclusive; I didn’t know what to do next.
The tests were inconclusive. I didn’t know what to do next.

All of these revisions are fine, and you can probably imagine many others. Which approach you choose depends on what suits the context, what tone and rhythm you want to convey, and so on.

Comma splices were more common in 18th and 19th century English, when they were not considered ungrammatical. Although modern English is more rigorous, comma splices have been used by authors like William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, E. M. Forster, John Banville, Iris Murdoch, E. L. Doctorow, Hermann Hesse, and E. B. White (he of Strunk & White). Here’s White, in a letter from 1963:

Tell Johnny to read Santayana for a little while, it will improve his sentence structure.

No one could reasonably find fault with this comma splice. Its informality is obvious, and the sentence style is easy and plain.

Comma splices are especially popular with children, who tend to use lots of them in long rambling sentences. If you use comma splices in fiction or informal writing and you know what you’re doing, they should be fine. If you use them in student papers, official reports and the like, they may not. You can avoid them by using the techniques shown above.


For lots more discussion, and many examples of comma splices from literature, see my follow-up post “Oh, the Splices You’ll See!