Friday, October 27, 2006

Shoots and leaves.

There is nothing so satisfying as watching someone being hoist with his own petard, and if you want to be so hoisted, write an article about punctuation. It isn't really fair to criticize the punctuation of bloggers, because blogs are often written in haste and seldom proof-read or subjected to the scrutiny of Microsoft grammarians. But it is fun.

As a writer, I was brought up on Fowler. To be correct, on the Second Edition, as revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, and I have on my shelf the following: The Complete Plain Words by Gowers, Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, The Pedant's Revolt by Andrea Bareham, Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, The King's English by Kingsley Amis, Lapsing Into a Comma by Bill Walsh, Paradigms Lost by John Simon, Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson, Usage and Abusage by Eric Partridge, and Full Marks by John Kirkman. In addition I have another 36 books on the English language in its various forms.

Despite this, I am prone to making mistakes. Good writing is not just about being grammatically correct; it is more about using grammar to make meaning clear and reading a pleasure. The more you know about the structure of language, the more you can use it well. So, grammar is not a game of spotting flaws in other people's prose, but an exercise in imagination, creativity and clarity. It means taking risks. It means laying yourself open to criticism.

Then again, it's a matter of style. Some people like long sentences full of subordinate clauses, which work very well if you are writing a technical description for a scientific journal like the Lancet, which, incidentally, has a completely different style from the British Medical Journal (parenthetically, can I interpose that I once wrote the same article for the BMJ and Lancet - they were published anonymously in the same week - the same article, but with different styles, so that no-one, not even the editors, knew that they had been written by the same author), but less well if you are aiming to be understood because you have to unravel all the subordinate clauses to see which one come first. Others prefer short sentences. Punctuation becomes a problem with longer sentences. Short sentences are clearer. They also get boring to read. Especially if they don't have a verb. As in Kathy Reichs. Grammar helps us to be both understood and entertained.

Even Fowler allows split infinitives. The lengths that some newsreaders go to carefully to avoid splitting an infinitive leads to English that sounds stilted and unnatural. 'To boldly go' doesn’t mean quite the same thing as 'to go boldly' or 'boldly to go'; in fact the very act of splitting that infinitive captured the flavor of Star Trek. The fact is that good writers break rules and it makes their writing more attractive.

And so to bed.


Terry Hamblin said...

There are some deliberate 'mistakes' in this article. Don't waste time trying to spot them. I was taught at school never to start a sentence with 'and', 'but', 'so' or 'then'. But I had some fun seeing if I legitimately could. Microsoft also tells me that there is an occasion when I use a plural subject with a singular verb. So I do, but try it the other way and see if it sounds right.

Anonymous said...

alright rerry......but we don't want sentences without
a verb - ok! might want to boldly go....but keep
them split infinitives under do you teach that - repression,normal diet of good taste,or ancient bequest after deep plunging in blogsphere.

chow for now.

thought:terry on SMS
i have avoided texting, wondering if i shall break the surface the other side of this particular amazon to squeak.