See link below for a collection of advice gleaned from her letters. I particularly like the fact that she referred to people who were too obsessed with punctuation as ‘dull elves’. Try saying that the next time someone starts a discussion on the apostrophe. Also, she sums up everything about persistence by saying, ‘I am not at all in a humour for writing, I must write on till I am.’
The second in an occasional series in which Dr Gapper examines a punctuation mark in the vain hope that he will stop sticking it everywhere in his writing. This time the comma. Or should I say, ‘This time, the comma’? To be honest, I don’t know. That’s why I am bringing this up.
James Thurber and the editor of the New Yorker are said to have had fights over commas for many years. JT (the original JT) hated them so much that he would apparently punctuate the colours of the flag: ‘red white and blue’. And at a certain point it is just to do with personal idiosyncrasy, suggesting a rhythm in which the writer would like the passage to be read.
Many books and websites give extensive guidance on the issue. I understand that, for the most part, commas are used for clarity. ‘My girl Bill’ is different to, ‘She’s my girl, Bill.’ Easy.
But none of these sources seem to answer the issues I have. For example if I see anything more than seven words unpunctuated I start to panic. (That sentence was like cold turkey.) Also, I have noticed that if I take a quarter breath while writing, I automatically stick a comma in (like that last one).
So have a look at the following examples from my previous posts or emails:
- The great thing is, she’s just started.
- If this doesn’t work for you, we’ll arrange a time when I get back.
- In the next episode, Dr Gapper tackles the comma.
- Like, what’s it doing after ‘Like’ in this sentence?
- This time, the comma.
How would you punctuate them? I took these examples to a comma expert (no really) who offered the following opinions:
- The great thing is, she’s just started. This is an example of the comma for efficient reading. So you don’t have to go back a second time to read it in order for it to make sense. (Though she was not happy with the dangling ‘is’.)
- If this doesn’t work for you, we’ll arrange a time when I get back. Again, efficient reading, without the comma, it would read ‘you we’, which could cause confusion.
- In the next episode, Dr Gapper tackles the comma. This comma is not needed, it should be read as one flowing sentence.
- Like, what’s it doing after ‘Like’ in this sentence? Yes, ok. It is being used to introduce an idea, like a sort of mini-colon.
- This time, the comma. Again, efficient reading. Having the words ‘this time the comma’ could be confusing.
At which point I would like to quote The Social Network: ‘Ann, punch me in the face will you?’ Because it can all get a bit nit-picky and there are probably better things to do with our lives. But if you have your own opinions do join in the debate. I say this knowing that it is usually the cue for the distant sound of wind and the sight of tumbleweed on the horizon.
Next time, Dr Gapper will examine his own use of the semi-colon. Book your holidays now.
The first in an occasional series in which Dr Gapper examines a punctuation mark in the vain hope that he will stop sticking them everywhere in his writing. Plus, if ‘Punctuation: Ellipsis’ doesn’t get people flocking to this blog, what will?
For clarity, the ellipsis is this little fella…
When I did a recent proof check of my last novel I found 197 ellipses. How does anyone get 197 x three dots into such a small space? It was mainly in dialogue. People trailing off… There’s a lot of that. So I stopped them doing so.
The second thing was that I was using them where a character did something while speaking, eg ‘I was going to put another ellipsis in this paragraph…’ Jim wafted an artistic hand into the air ‘…but then I decided not to.’ I was so shocked by the number of them in my novel that I looked ellipsis up online and found that this could be handled with a comma. For example, ‘I wonder sometimes if I should use such flamboyant gestures,’ Jim raised the other hand up to meet the first, ‘people might think I looked foolish.’
The third change was to stop using them when people were being interrupted. Eg:
‘You look like an idiot, Jim. Could I su…’
‘Don’t tell me what to do!’ Unable to gesture with his arms, Jim nodded furiously at his friend.
Apparently, interruptions are indicated with a dash.
‘I’m not, Jim. I just thou–‘
‘Did you? I’m going out!’ Jim stormed out through open doorway, knocking his wrists against the top of the frame.
I realise I lost a lot of people in the first paragraph. But if you have stuck with me, all of this editing meant that I got the ellipsis count down from 197 to 40. Which is still a lot, but not as many as there were.
In the next episode, Dr Gapper tackles the comma. Like, what’s it doing following ‘episode’ in that last sentence, or after ‘Like’ in this one? I also take requests.