Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Saving the world, one comma at a time

I bought this book last week. I made it all the way to page 17, and then I just couldn't stand it another moment.

I realize this isn't precisely how Ms. Truss intended these emergency punctuation marks to be used, but...

I just couldn't seem to help myself.

Of course, if the panda on the ladder succeeds in painting out that first comma, I will gladly remove the second. But I won't do it a moment sooner, because I'm worried that the panda with the gun might suddenly turn around, and...well, you know. And if the panda on the ladder falls off before he finishes his job, the book's title will need my comma in order to be properly punctuated.

If this post doesn't make sense, it's probably because you're new around here. Check out my post on Serial comma killers and all will become clear.

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Cathy West said...

Um, I actually enjoyed this book...
Perhaps it was due to my British schooling. I actually found it quite funny.
Oh, well.

Brenda Coulter said...

Oh, I'm still reading the book, Cathy. I'm nearly halfway through it, and like you, I'm enjoying the humor. What I "couldn't stand another moment" was the improperly punctuated title.


Bonnie Calhoun said...

I knew somehow you'd find a way to fix that title...LOL!

Kristin said...

You know what, Brenda? I feel the same way about the serial comma. However, it is proper to do EITHER from what I understand. Leaving out that last comma is more acceptable more in the academic world (when I was researching this).

If that's the case, I HATE it. It makes for some very confusing reading.

Have you also noticed that a lot of fiction these days seems to leave out all kinds of commas? Is this just to save space? Or is it a sign of poor editing? Sometimes I will have to read a sentence several times over to understand what the author is trying to say.

Brenda Coulter said...

Don't blame the authors. In most cases, it's the publisher's house style that's responsible for those atrocities.

Publishers employ copyeditors to ride herd on authors who would run contrary to house style. And when a publisher decrees that serial commas, for instance, are Not To Be Tolerated, an author has no recourse.

Because I realize any serial comma I put into a manuscript is going to get yanked right out by one of Harlequin's diligent copyeditors, I refrain from using complicated lists that might confuse readers when my dear little commas are removed. For instance, I would never write:

After a quick look at the menu, Dirk ordered coffee, biscuits, and ham and cheese grits.

Now, there is such a thing as ham and cheese grits. It involves diced ham being stirred into cheese grits. There is also such a thing as biscuits and ham. You simply split biscuits and then shove in some sliced ham to make delightful little sandwiches. So when the copyeditor removes my serial comma and you read that Dirk has ordered "coffee, biscuits and ham and cheese grits," you aren't going to know if the ham's in Dirk's biscuits or in his grits, are you? And particularly if you are from the American South, this will matter to you. (I know how seriously y'all take your biscuits and grits!)

I still use serial commas in my manuscripts, even though I know they will be taken out. That's just my little rebellion.

As for the scarcity of (non-serial) commas in published novels, all I know is that my editors never insert commas in my manuscripts, but they have often removed commas.

One thing I'll give 'em, though. My editors have never attempted to curb my liberal use of semicolons. The trend in today's fiction is toward shorter sentences, so many editors will replace a semicolon with periods and then begin a new sentence. That would bother me because it's not merely "correcting" punctuation--it's interfering with the author's voice.