punctuation

A special sentence structure

July 17, 2017 | 15 Comments

Punctuation & my pig tale

July 6, 2017 | 14 Comments

The New York Times isn’t alone in making me ill over its colon usage. But I adore the Times and read it faithfully, so I’m daily aggrieved. The usage I detest: capitalizing the first letter of the clause after a colon. In this style, incomplete sentences escape the initial capital. But independent clauses unfortunately do not.

Here’s a true story in which I’ll use a colon before an independent clause in the first sentence of the second paragraph:

“I knew a farmer who had a sow who learned to escape by ramming herself through an electrified fence. Hot wires hurt. Even if briefly. The swine knew this. But oh, the rewards of freedom! So she’d run full bore, as it were, at the fence.

“And, knowing she’d suffer, she’d start screaming: before she was shocked, she’d start screaming. Which was how the farmer knew his pig was out again. Inside his house, he’d hear her cries as she ran, unfettered and unharmed, at the waiting fence. I wonder if what really motivated her was rage—at injustice, since, technically, the fence hurt her before her crime.”

The idiocy of the alternate stylistic practice is that, following its hazy logic, the first word in an independent clause after a semicolon should really be capitalized too: “And, knowing she’d suffer, she’d start screaming; Before she was shocked, she’d start screaming.”

Now I really feel nauseous. I mean, look at it.

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Sentence, substance & comma joy

February 24, 2016 | 7 Comments

Thankfully teaching impels me to reread and study great literature. I’ve just reread, for a class I’m teaching, “Notes of a Native Son,” America’s greatest essay—greatest because its content deals with our nation’s great topic, race, and because of its artistry—and I’ve seen something new in James Baldwin’s famous prose style.

Of course his sentences work within a framed structure, opening with his father’s funeral and returning to it to close, and the essay is classically broken into three acts as well. Then there’s Baldwin’s thundering Old Testament condemnation of racism. He shows and explains his own bewildering, maddening experiences with discrimination in the 1950s. And he sees at last how the racism of America’s long apartheid era warped his father. But Baldwin, then 19, has returned too late to his father’s deathbed for them to talk, let alone to discuss how to live with this burden of bitterness.

The essay’s rounded sentences, gravid with clauses and commas, convey a deep and subtle mind groping toward personal and universal truths. Baldwin’s prose itself ruminates. He can be as halting as Henry James. At the same time, conversely, he speeds up his orotund sentences. The combination of lingering and racing ahead creates an interesting rhythm, which is part of the essay’s powerful effect. In both content and style, “Notes of a Native Son” is at once chewy and flowing.

This time through, I saw clearer why that is. Many of the commas that truncate the essay’s sentences are unnecessary, strictly speaking, but lend the essay its thoughtful air. Yet Baldwin usually omits commas at a key juncture. He consistently breaks the rule-of-thumb that commas should assist conjunctions when joining independent clauses.

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A Mexican bard

January 6, 2016 | 8 Comments

Mexico’s acclaimed writer Daniel Sada, who died in 2011, wrote nine novels in Spanish. One Out of Two is the second to be translated to English, both by Katherine Silver. William Shakespeare would have applauded this story, which can be viewed as a marvelous mashup of two plays: The Comedy of Errors and Much Ado About Nothing.

The Gamal sisters, twin seamstresses, enjoy confusing people about their identities. Their small world in Ocampo, Chihuahua (Mexico), is upended one day when a suitor named Oscar Segura enters the picture—but exactly which sister is he courting, Gloria or Constitución? Using this mixed-up charade as a springboard, Sada spins a yarn that weaves in zingers about love, lust, sex, identity, profession, gender roles, weddings, marriages, funerals, ancestors, truth, deception, forgetting, and the passage of time. Ingenious metaphors explore broader themes: individualism, collectivism, symbiosis, codes of honor, and values. The storyteller’s clear distinctive voice spinning this comical tale is compelling. One can practically visualize the narrator’s arms waving dramatically, eyes rolling in exasperation and widening in anticipation, while the plot advances.

One method Sada used involves unique punctuation such as repeated colons—often two, three, or four in the same sentence—to give the narrator’s delivery an attitude. Sada also applied quite liberally the one-em dash for emphasis and ellipses for pauses. Toying with these marks allows a skilled author to develop an almost audible speech pattern by pushing readers to hear words on the page differently. In a similar vein, Norwegian writer Per Petterson totally shunned question marks in his recent novel I Refuse (reviewed), constructing a particular voice that slowly ratcheted up the tension, impelling readers to listen.

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Emphasizing structure

April 29, 2015 | 6 Comments

I suppose like all writing teachers, I try to emulate certain teachers. But mostly I’m trying to be the teacher I wish I’d had. Someone who illuminates a genre and saves me from myself. The latter is too much to ask, I know. But here’s a secret. I think I’ve become a good teacher of memoir writing, at least for beginners.

A key reason for my feeling of success is my evolving emphasis on structure. In my experience, green writers can produce creditable-to-impressive work if they focus not just on the story they want to tell but on how best to present it. Fine work ensues in my memoir classes if I show students framing, braiding, Hermit Crabs, and segmentation along with scenes and persona and the rest. Structure cracks open their material to themselves. Structure makes the eye-popping difference between a plodding chronology and a memoir essay enriched with layers and refreshing rhetorical moves.

I’m talking about receiving poignant and interesting work from a twenty-year-old. Someone who has read one novel for enjoyment in his life, whose grasp of grammar is shaky, and who has never willingly written. Much less taken a creative writing class. Maybe every teacher is doing that. If so, I’m conceited for suspecting I’m special. But amidst the very hard work of teaching, receiving such writing keeps me going. A kid’s essay may be a tad lumpy, a lopsided vase, especially the first draft, but it can also be—undeniably—art.

“Art is made of emotion, is about emotion, and asks for an emotional response,” I told my students this semester.

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A salute to sentences

July 2, 2014 | 15 Comments

Jenny Davidson loves to read. In fact, she’s spent her entire life immersed in words as a professional reader. A professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Davidson has written four novels and two academic works. Her blog is called “Light Reading.”

In a new book, Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, she explores literature while weaving together vignettes from her two worlds of reader and critic. She likens the reading habit to a compulsion or an addiction. For fellow reading addicts, she suggests keeping a field notebook, as an ornithologist might on bird sightings, to record those sentences that “glimmer.”

Davidson debunks the “self-improvement” motive to read, calling reading “a form of intellectual play” rather than a lesson. She boils it down to the “details of language” and states firmly: “All sentences are not created equal.” She labels sentences “verbal artifacts,” believing style is everything. A person’s temperament can be discerned by sentences written, she says, adding, “a sentence is the key to the heart.” She confesses she was a “word child.”

While weighing the merits of a comma versus a colon or semicolon, she champions the comma for being less judgmental—but loathes the Oxford comma.

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Joshua Cody’s book [sic]

January 8, 2014 | 15 Comments

The first two times I opened [sic]: A Memoir, I was impressed by Joshua Cody’s sentences—cool, syntactically complex, allusive. But I didn’t keep reading it because was working on my own book and sensed immediately that his high-flying persona was at odds with my attempt at a sincere one.

Late in 2013 I made it through [sic] and admired it, so refreshingly different from my own writing—or almost anyone’s. I wouldn’t try such a performance and couldn’t sustain one for long if I did. A possible cost of Cody’s approach is that I always felt distanced from him. How much “knowing” and liking a memoirist matters to you is intensely personal, but partly because of this, at times reading [sic] my mind wandered. Cody’s memoir showcases not only the rewards but the risks of a flamboyant (some would say egoistic) persona.

American reviewers generally raved [sic] (see the appreciative review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review), while it got a cooler reception in Europe—the Guardian’s review’s headline: “Joshua Cody’s postmodern memoir of terminal illness is too busy being clever to engage the reader’s feelings.” Guardian reviewer Robert McCrum called Cody “too cool for school” and said, “Part of the essential vanity of this publication is that Cody has been horribly overindulged, and allowed to lard his manuscript with illustrative material. [sic] is a book about sickness that should have been sent to the script doctor. It’s a mess; worse, it’s a pretentious mess. Descended from that great Victorian exhibitionist, ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, it’s almost as if he’s genetically programmed to perform to the crowd.”

But the pervasive gut-level response of Amazon’s crowd of readers was rage.

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