The Oxford Comma and Other Punctuation Discontents

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If you don’t believe language is malleable, go back to original publications of the U.S.’s Civil War era and notice the differences in diction from then to now, the spellings, capitalization practices, and of course, punctuation. Slip back in time to the era of the French Revolution, find a really old copy of Victor Hugo’s work,  Les Miserables, and you’ll find in the work’s latter chapters where this malleability comes from.

But let’s talk punctuation here:

It was in the nineteenth century that the possessive of it contained an apostrophe, i.e., it’s, and sometime early in the twentieth the apostrophe slowly disappeared from standard usage. Still, it’s was taught as late as mid twentieth century. Even today, when the only accepted use of an apostrophe with it is a contracted it is, I still see it in informal letters and (gasp!) on the Internet.

Some things, like it’s, stubbornly remain in informal usage, while others such as the possessive of nouns ending in s are downright schizophrenic. I, for instance, refuse to knuckle under to today’s common usage of the possessive of such nouns as s’s. When I see a possessive of nouns ending in a double s (ss) as ss’s, it looks for all the world like a typist went to sleep with middle finger on the s key. So I stick, for the most part to s’.

And then there’s the Oxford comma.

I was taught to use it, but I didn’t know why, and when it began slipping from standard usage I stubbornly stuck with it. To compound matters, when I first heard of it, I thought it was a Southern thing, originating in Oxford, Mississippi. Not so. It had its early usage at Oxford University in England. Most of what you’ll care to know about its beginnings and evolution you’ll find here. It almost disappeared from use, and then reared its squiggly head in the aftermath of a lawsuit in Maine. It’s undeniable that it provides more clarity, and it seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

There are other squirrelly punctuation usages, but these are the ones that get my hackles up. So let’s resolve here: standard usage is subject to problems and, well, to time itself, so let’s use what makes the most sense in our writing.

 

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How Much Editing Is Enough?

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You’ve had a request for your complete manuscript from an agent or editor. Suddenly your mouth goes dry. Your knees are shaky. Is your manuscript REALLY ready for prime time?

OR

Let’s say you’re a DIY person, and you publish yourself through Amazon or Smashwords, or some other self publishing organ. Will your readers toss your book in disgust because it’s so amateurishly edited?

OR

Maybe you’re hyper-anal or compulsive, and you don’t know when to stop the editing process. When, exactly, is enough enough?

To my mind there’s no “exactly” possible; it’s my contention that there’s never been a perfect novel or non-fiction book written. Still, don’t use that as an excuse to take a lazy approach to editing.

Some newbie writers don’t much care for the editing process; it’s not where the creative process is, they will tell you. And some high-dollar writers feel this way, too. But editing can be very creative, very enjoyable. Here are some hints at where good editing lies:

  • Spelling – you may not be a good speller, but at least some of your readers, or editors/agents will be. Use your dictionary. Plain and simple.
  • Punctuation – Too many commas, too few punctuation marks otherwise. It’s normal to insert commas wherever your thought process stops and starts, but will the reader need them, or will they get in the way? Make sure you punctuate so that your written intent is clear to the reader. You don’t want him or her to have to keep re-reading a passage to gain its meaning. Also, word processing software isn’t always of help with punctuation. If you leave a period out or fail to close quotes, for instance, your software may not catch it. And these things will be glaring to the reader.

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Okay, those are the easy ones. Now here’s where editing can get really creative. The central thing to remember here is: Will your reader enjoy reading your book, essay, or short story? Remember, you’re writing for your reader, not you. So when you have a good draft – or you think you’ve edited enough, set the manuscript aside until you can look at it as a reader, not its author. Then consider these things:

  • Have you varied your sentence structure? Don’t keep  writing long, complicated sentences just because you’re confident that you can punctuate them properly. Or only write pages and pages of eight word sentences.
  • Are dialogue tags, i.e., the “he said” “she said” tags doing their job in making clear who is speaking? Don’t get overly creative with these. Sometimes you can make these perform multiple purposes, but strive to keep the reader’s attention on what’s between the quote marks (if you use them).
  • Are you sure of what you’re trying to say in your piece, whether book-length or flash fiction? If not, take a break and write down what the theme of your piece is meant to be. Summarize your manuscript in a single paragraph. Then you’ll more nearly know how the manuscript should be structured,whether or not it will work for the reader.
  • Is your voice consistent? Or after reading chapter 1 and chapter 12, do they seem to have been written by different people?
  • Does your narrative appeal to the senses? All of them? But if it’s an abstract, informational essay, for instance, you may not want to heavy up on the piece’s atmosphere.
  • Do your scenes “pop” with energy, emotion, intimacy? Are your characters vividly portrayed in ways in which the reader can know them and perhaps identify with them?
  • Does your writing alternate action and energy with a release of such tension?
  • Let’s say your manuscript is 300 pages in length.  You’ve worked hard on the first 30 pages, because you want to hook your reader. Read the piece’s middle three chapters. Are these three as enthralling as those first 30 pages? Quite often, even with seasoned writers, a long manuscript’s middle section drags, as if it’s there for nothing more than filler. I call such ho-hum middle sections the Kansas and Iowa of a manuscript, i.e., the energy of the work has stalled here. (Apologies to Midwesterners)

Okay. There are other things to consider, too, but these may be unique to your manuscript. If you have given the above considerations your best shot, your editing is probably sufficient. HOWEVER: any publisher, agent, or editor may want to change your manuscript, to lop out portions, or to heavy up on others. GIVE THESE CAREFUL CONSIDERATION. More than likely, their suggestions will improve your manuscript in some way. But if you feel very strongly about your manuscript segments or its totality, defend your point of view. The person requesting changes may very well back down in the face of a good argument.

 

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The Cost of Proofing

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I’ve been doing some contract work lately proofing other people’s writing, both fiction and nonfiction, with a children’s book in the offing. Being of a sunny disposition and sure that those sending their work to me have put it in the best shape possible, I bid what turns out to be paltry sums .

But no more. I’m going to have to charge upscale prices from now on.

Not that the money is the thing. The writing’s integrity is what matters, of course. But here’s the way that works:

By the time the work reaches me, it should have been pored over, the story laid out in a way that attracts the reader, page by page. And the grammar – sentence structure should be varied, amplifying the story as tension develops and is resolved. My job should be one of polishing, looking for inadvertently misspelled words, correcting, adding, or deleting punctuation that in its turn affects sentence structure and indirectly the story itself.

That’s not what I’m finding.

The grander culprit in the work before me is long, convoluted sentences, sentences that are poorly or improperly punctuated. Why the long sentences? I asked a friend that once. He said, in essence, that he was a damn fine writer, and his ability to write these Byzantine sentences proves it. Of course, that’s not so. One might overdo short, declarative sentences, but they do serve a purpose. And who writes so cavalierly that he/she misspells famous persons’ names when it’s so easy to check the spelling on the Net? Who uses commas instead of periods, perhaps thinking that since these two marks are adjacent on keyboards, a near miss counts?

I’ll quit the examples before this turns into a rant but, dear writers out there, when you hire someone like me to proof your writing, it’s really cost-effective to have the manuscript in the best shape possible before I see it.

It really is.

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José Saramago, R.I.P. – Paper Cuts Blog – NYTimes.com

I've just noticed this sad note. "Blindness" was my introduction to this writer's fascinating style. He tended to use little punctuation – even periods, which can be a burden to the punctuation inclined.

But that fact hooked my pal Dave Frauenfelder, an expert at Latin and Greek, because, as I recall, the old Greek was pretty much void of punctuation.

RIP, Jose.

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As it happens, I was reading the advance edition of José Saramago’s latest novel when news arrived this morning of his death at age 87.

via papercuts.blogs.nytimes.com