“8. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption, and to announce a long appositive or summary.”
A dash is a mark of separation, stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.”
–The Elements of Style
I like “mark of separation”. It is reassuringly informal. Dashes, commas, colons, semicolons–for all their complex circuitry, all they really do is separate. They make your brain (or breath, if you’re reading aloud) pause.
This supports a view I’ve always liked about punctuation, that it’s our best of our ultimately futile attempts to put the nuances of speech into print. Have you ever written something to someone that offended them, but you know that if you had said it, they would have found it every bit as funny or empathetic as you?
Choose your pauses carefully.
“Murphy’s Law assures us that no amount of proofreading will uncover all the errors of a work about to be published. The questions are, how many re-readings are reasonable and when should compulsiveness be applied?”
-Arthur Plotnik, The Elements of Editing
I like to imagine I carry around a little hoagie-shop card that gets stamped every time I make any sort of mistake. Buy ten and the eleventh is FAILURE.
No one wants to attach their reputation to a paragraph that could contain an outright spelling error or grammatical cow pie, but who can say that’s never happened? We minimize, we mitigate, a few of us get to 99.9%.
Proofreading, especially with longer manuscripts, can become one of those things that gets easier the less you “try”, the less you tell yourself that you’d better get it right and get it right now. Which is another way of saying: Experience and maturity are the only ways to get it right.
On that note, please inform me of the errors in my recent post of short fiction on my wine blog.
Sitting in the New York Public Library does not make you smarter or more focused. (Declining the free WiFi does both, but you knew that already.)
What it really offers is the opportunity to practice your bad habits with seven generations of Astors judging you from their portrait frames. That and access to the collected wisdom of civilization so far, but if you read over a random sampling of shoulders in the Rose Reading Room, count on seeing more Facebook than Freud.
I guess this is why libraries are in trouble–their greatest assets are becoming less relevant to the people who spend time there. If it closes one day, they can go to Starbucks and use the internet there. They’re not checking out books, so they’re not paying late fees, and they’re certainly not buying the $8.50 pens in the gift shop.
The sustenance is only coming now in giant wads from moneybags like Stephen A. Schwarzman, who got his name on the main building. But how effective is a blood transfusion through a high-pressure firehose? A slow, steady drip is what will get the patient on her feet again.
And I need a new pen. Can I borrow $10?
The day is long, the week is longer. Is there a name you can give to the time that you wasted?
Like everything else worth doing, writing takes time. Assembling sentences in your head can take a lot of time. Doing it with the internet sprawling out before you takes way too much time.
So set deadlines, engage website blockers, go for the full Trollope and try to force a certain number of WPM. In the end, you just need to be productive enough to write something great. How long is that supposed to take?
Can you write something great with the rest of #*@!$&* life going on around you?
“Use commas to bracket nonrestrictive phrases, which are not essential to the sentence’s meaning.
- King and Lucille, his customized black Gibsons have electrified audiences all over the world.
- King and Lucille, his customized black Gibsons, have electrified audiences all over the world.”
-Gerry O’Connor, Professor of English, Suffolk County Community College, “11 Essential Rules of Grammar”
Well, I’m not sure if The Beale Street Blues Boy thinks of all the black ES-355’s he’s ever used to shoot lightning bolts as one collective “Lucille”.
But that’s not the point. Restrictive phrases and the right way to bracket them are one of those things that most of us know and practice instinctively. But they’re also one of those things worth pausing and looking at for a few seconds to better understand what we’re doing on the page.
Mr. O’Connor gives this example to demonstrate the opposite:
- “The cats, with six toes, are a unique attraction of the tour of Hemingway’s house.
- The cats with six toes are a unique attraction of the tour of Hemingway’s house.”
This is not quite as obvious a wrong/right binary as the first one. It sounds OK with the commas. But the point comes across–bracketing with commas declares a detail less essential than it may otherwise be.
I saw some good speeches today that would not have been good pieces of writing, transcribed. Is this a new thing? Back in the day, good speeches were destined to end up as literature.
This may have something to do with the premium on casualness and conversational tone put on speeches now. When did conversational become code for sophomoric? Jokes and throwaway pop culture references ren’t a totally recent development, but being perceived as wooden or whatever seems only recently to be the ultimate sin at the rostrum.
How do you be personable and engaging without filling your address with marshmallow fluff?
Contact. As a transitive verb, the word is vague and self-important. Do not contact anybody; get in touch with him, or look him up, or phone him, or find him, or meet him.
–The Elements of Style
Or Facebook him! Or Tweet at him! Or Pin him! Or get with the times and write “him or her”!
This one is going to have a hard time surviving. Everyone contacts everyone now. But the flailing glance at it in EOS at least forces us to look again at what a transitive verb is: A verb with a direct subject and object.
Two good examples:
“Brevity is the soul of wit”
“I hate the Drake”
An intransitive verb has no object:
“For those about to rock” (intransitive–rock what?)
We salute you, transitively.
“The financial rewards (of writing) just don’t make up for the expenditure of energy, the damage to health caused by stimulants and narcotics, the fear that one’s work isn’t good enough. I think if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.”
-Anthony Burgess to The Paris Review
I think if I had the guts and vision to write A Clockwork Orange or Nothing Like The Sun, I’d give up money tomorrow. Anthony Burgess may have just been having a bolshy sodding smeck at the expense of his admirers when he said that, but it’s also entirely possible he meant it.
Was he really not bringing in enough scratch to make the grueling parts of the creative process bearable? Is being a celebrated author/translator/screenwriter/critic/librettist a deceptively hard-knock life?
I doubt it. Maybe his budget favored stimulants and narcotics a little too much. But I also doubt this lament was ever echoed by Stephen King, a former drunk who has admitted to utilizing mirrors and razor blades for things other than shaving.
The real question is: How much money would have made a person like Anthony Burgess happy?
Or, how much writing?
“Language is a form of human reason, which has its internal logic of which man knows nothing.” –Levi-Strauss