Adding a comma between the subject and predicate, is inadvisable

November 1, 2017

In his classic short book on punctuation, Mind the Stop, G.V. Carey says of the comma: ‘The writer who handles this puny little stop correctly and sensibly can probably punctuate as well as need be.’ My work as a copy-editor generally bears this out, but such proficiency is unusual. It’s a tricky mark to master.

One of the first things we learn implicitly about commas is that they’re not normally used between a subject and predicate: Jane cycles, not *Jane, cycles. They may, of course, be needed in pair form if the subject is followed by an appositive phrase (Jane, a city girl, cycles) or a non-restrictive clause (Jane, who is a city girl, cycles).

Jane, cycles is perhaps a misleading example in that the subject is short and simple, and such a mistake would be unlikely from a native-English speaker with basic education. Lengthen or complicate the subject, though, and commas begin to materialise.

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The prescriptivism is coming from inside the house

September 30, 2017

Still playing catch-up on Michael Connelly’s books, I recently read his novel The Drop, which features his usual protagonist, LA-based police detective Harry Bosch. Bosch is at home watching a security tape (well, a DVD), on his teenage daughter’s laptop. She asks him what it’s about. Bosch says to her:

‘This guy checking in, he goes up to his room on the seventh floor last night and this morning he’s found on the sidewalk below. I have to figure out if he jumped or if he got dropped.’

She stopped the playback.

‘If he was dropped, Dad. Please. You sound like a palooka when you talk like that.’

‘Sorry. How do you know what a “palooka” is, anyway?’

‘Tennessee Williams. I read. A palooka is an old fighter who’s like a lout. You don’t want to be like that.’

It’s not the first time Madeline has corrected her father. In ‘Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist’ I reported how (in Connelly’s The Reversal) she upbraided him for using nonstandard grammar: a dialect usage of the form I’m done my work. Me, I’d rather be a palooka than a peever, but Madeline is young; she’ll come round yet.

Connelly’s books are usually well edited, but The Drop has a few questionable items worth a look – not to find fault, but out of editorial and readerly interest. First:

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Steven Pinker on rewriting

September 13, 2017

When you want to improve a piece of writing, showing it to someone (such as a beta reader) is often a good idea. This doesn’t apply to everything, obviously, but it’s especially valuable for text intended for publication, or when you’re concerned about how the audience will react to what you’ve written.

Steven Pinker, in The Sense of Style (2014), recommends that you also ‘show a draft to yourself’ – preferably having spent time away from it. This too is sound advice. It’s not new, but I like the slant Pinker puts on it, that you should show it to yourself as though you were another person, which, in a sense proportionate to the time that has passed, you are. He says you may find yourself wondering, as he does:

‘What did I mean by that?’ or ‘How does this follow?’ or, all too often, ‘Who wrote this crap?’

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Elena Ferrante delaying the verb

September 9, 2017

A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it. —Gertrude Stein

Writers are often advised to introduce the main verb of a sentence early. It’s generally good advice. Delaying the verb by prefacing it with subordinate clauses, adjuncts, participle phrases and assorted throat-clearing puts a cognitive load on readers. They must hold it all in their short-term memory until the verb arrives and they find out what frame the extra information fits into.

This is a particular problem in nonfiction prose, where communicating facts is a primary aim. I see it regularly in texts I edit: long lists and unpredictable subclauses pile up before I learn what the sentence is even about. With a little rearrangement the main verb can be brought forward, and the point is made much more direct and comprehensible.

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Reading coincidences: geese edition

August 5, 2017

Konrad Lorenz’s books always have wonderful anecdotes about animals, and On Aggression (1963, tr. Marjorie Latzke) is no exception. One chapter describes habit formation in geese, a greylag goose named Martina in particular, whom Lorenz had reared and who had imprinted on him. Lorenz writes:

University Paperback book cover on Konrad Lorenz's 'On Aggression', featuring a large b&w illustration of a snarling tiger's headIn her earliest childhood, Martina had acquired a fixed habit: when she was about a week old I decided to let her walk upstairs to my bedroom instead of carrying her up, as until then had been my custom. Greylag geese resent being touched and it frightens them, so it is better to spare them this indignity if possible.

Pleased by this information, and by how it was phrased, I tweeted it. Later, after sharing another excerpt on geese behaviour, I added a hashtag:

And there the idea would have remained, except that the next book I picked up, Molly Keane’s Loving and Giving, had its own geese tips.

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Euphemisms for the stomach

July 31, 2017

Sometimes we use language to talk about something without referring to it directly – for fear of flouting social or moral convention, for fear of the thing itself, to conceal and deceive, and so on. In everyday discourse much of this falls under politeness and pragmatics: certain domains are taboo to whatever degree, so we employ euphemisms to avoid crossing a line of what is considered appropriate in the context.

Book cover of 'Loving and Giving' by Molly Keane, publisher AbacusThe last time I wrote about euphemisms on Sentence first, it was to share commentary in Molly Keane’s novel Good Behaviour on the many ways to refer to the toilet without mentioning the toilet or even the bathroom.

In Loving and Giving, another bittersweet comic gem by Keane, the area of taboo avoidance is the middle anatomy. The novel follows an Irish girl, Nicandra (named by her father after a beloved horse), who is eight years old when we first meet her. Her Aunt Tossie lives in the big house with them, and Nicandra goes to her room one morning:

Her nightdress was nothing like as pretty as Maman’s, no lace, only broderie anglaise the same as edged Nicandra’s drawers (“knickers” was a common word, not to be used. For the same reason, if you had a pain it was in “your little inside”, not in your stomach – and there were no words beyond “down there” to describe any itch or ailment in the lower parts of your body).

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F.L. Lucas on style: ‘personality clothed in words’

July 19, 2017

Two of my favourite books on writing have the same one-word title: Style. Years ago I shared an essay by the author of the older Style, Frank Laurence Lucas, and having recently revisited his book, I’ll post a few excerpts.

First published in 1955, Lucas’s Style has dated in certain respects (try to ignore the generic male pronouns), but it is still full of sound advice and insights on the art and mechanics of composition. So then: What is style? Lucas describes it as:

a means by which a human being gains contact with others; it is personality clothed in words, character embodied in speech. If handwriting reveals character, style reveals it still more – unless it is so colourless and lifeless as not really to be a style at all. The fundamental thing, therefore, is not technique, useful though that may be; if a writer’s personality repels, it will not avail him to eschew split infinitives, to master the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’, to have Fowler’s Modern English Usage by heart. Soul is more than syntax. If your readers dislike you, they will dislike what you say.

Three chapters are titled ‘Courtesy to Readers’. The first, on clarity, concludes with a note on how to achieve it:

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