John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to email@example.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Punctuation without fear
By now you should have figured out where the comma is required, such as setting off appositives and nonrestrictive clauses, and where it is discretionary to mimic the rhythms of speech.
What some of you have not grasped, and I’m talking to you journalists in the back of the room now, is the difference between a compound sentence and a compound predicate, because a lot of you habitually omit the comma in the former and wantonly insert it in the latter.
When two independent clauses are joined by and, but, or or, separate them with a comma. The trumpet sounded, and the marchers set forth.
When a subject has two verbs, it is not necessary to separate the verbs with a comma. The trumpet sounded and propelled the marchers forward.
No one has written more vividly about punctuation than Nicholson Baker, whose 1993 essay, “The History of Punctuation,”* is reprinted in The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber.
The semicolon, he writes, the latest-arriving of the standard punctuation marks, is “even now subject to episodes of neglect and derision. Joyce preferred the more Attic colon, at least in Ulysses, and Beckett, as well, gradually rid his prose of what must have seemed to him an emblem of vulgar, high-Victorian applied ornament, a cast-iron flower of mass-produced Ciceronianism; instead of semi-colons, he spliced the phrases of Malone Dies and Molloy together with one-size-fits-all commas, as commonplace as stones on a beach, to achieve that dejected sort of murmured ecphonesis so characteristic of his narrative voice—all part of the general urge, perhaps, that led him to ditch English in favor of French, ‘pour m’appauvrir’: to impoverish himself.
“Donald Barthelme, too, who said that the example of Beckett was what first ‘allowed [him] to write,’ thought that the semi-colon was ‘ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly’—but he allowed that others might feel differently. And still the semi-colon survives, far too subtle and useful, it turns out, to be a casualty of modernism. It even participates in those newer forms of emotional punctuation called ‘smileys’ or ‘emoticons’—vaguely irritating attempts to supply a sideways facial expression at the close of an E-mail paragraph—e.g., :-) and >%-(. The semi-colon collaborates in the ‘wink’ or ‘smirk,’ thus—;-).”
The dash* and the hyphen
Hyphens join; dashes separate.
When you make use of compound modifiers, as in Mr. Baker’s “one-size-fits-all commas,” make sure that each part of the compound is linked with a hyphen.
When you make use of a dash to indicate some discontinuity, some branching off from the main line of the sentence, make sure that you have a dash, not a hyphen. Take the trouble to learn how to make a dash in your word-processing software. (Those of you bold enough to embark on the subtleties differentiating the use of the en-dash and em-dash can resort to the Chicago Manual of Style. Should you not return by sundown, we’ll send out a search-and-rescue party.)
And, I’m talking to you journalists in the back of the room again — sit up and pay attention — stop using all those dashes for mere parenthetical elements that could just as well be set off with commas.
When you have said all you have to say, come to a stop.
*The essay is a review of Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West by M.B. Parkes.
**Mr. Baker devotes considerable space in his essay to his admiration of the nineteenth-century fondness for the dash combined with the comma, semicolon, or colon in the works of Trollope, Thackeray, George Eliot, Carlyle, Ruskin, and Newman, though, regrettably, according to the Chicago Manual of Style, “dash-hybrids are currently illegal in the U.S.”