Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What's a little mark here and there?

I continue to enjoy the wit and wisdom of Lynne Truss and the "Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation", so today I'm bringing you from where we left off last at the end of May through to the end of June, a month in which commas, colons and semi-colons took the stage.

The month began with the comma, "a utilitarian mark....trying to serve both the sense and the sound of the sentence...", and I can agree with that. As mentioned in one of my previous posts on this subject, punctuation marks not only separate clauses, sentences, dialogue, quotations, and so on, they tell the reader when to pause, whether for a minute beat or enough time to take a full breath. According to Ms Truss, "More than any other mark, the comma requires the writer to use intelligent discretion and to be simply alert to potential ambiguity."

Well, discretion is a subjective thing, as I discovered when I took a writing skills test at my day job, a test developed by grammar experts with whose answer key I disagreed in a number of examples. I operate on the basis that if I would pause at a point in speaking a sentence, whether it be to take a breath or for dramatic effect, then that's where I should insert a comma. Not so my organization's experts--but that's another story entirely. For your edification, though, I'm including a couple of examples from Ms Truss.

"Leonora walked on her head, a little higher than usual." Can you spot the misplaced comma? It needs to move two words to the left. And how about "The driver managed to escape from the vehicle before it sank and swam to the river-bank."? The comma is missing entirely from that sentence, and should be placed, of course, behind "sank".

Yet, having determined the importance of the comma, Ms Truss goes on to infer that true masters of the craft are those who use colons and semicolons well. I don't see a lot of either in current romance novels of any length or category, but I think it's worth taking a look at them despite the "modern" preference for short sentences, short paragraphs, short sound bytes, and, it seems, short everything. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think we're "short changing" ourselves with that approach. However, I digress; back to the matter at hand.

Ms Truss assures us that although the colon and semi-colon (yes, that hyphen was deliberate since the E,S&L calendar alternates the spelling) are not old-fshioned, they are old. She says the first printed semicolon was the work of Aldus Manutius in 1494, and occurred at the same time and place as the invention of double-entry book-keeping--Venice. Apparently the mark, or symbol, itself is older though: medieval scribes had used something very similar to indicate abbreviations, and the Greeks used it (and she says they still do) to indicate a question.

My pocket dictionary defines a colon as a punctuation mark (:) used to introduce a series or catalogue of things, a speech, quotation, example, etc., and after the salutation in a formal letter. It defines a semicolon as a mark (;) of punctuation indicating a greater degree of separation than the comma, but less than the period. Ms Truss's approach to describing and discussing these marks is both entertaining and illustrative, and I'll share more of it with you later in the year as I progress through my calendar. In the meantime, do you agree find that there's a lot of emphasis on keeping sentences and paragraphs short? I know that's a generalization, and there are examples in our genre that contradict it, but it's my impression, particularly with newly published authors.

The usual routine is in place, and I'll be off at the day job so will check in with you in the evening.


Ban said...

Hmmm, Can't say as I've ever noticed but then again, unless someone's work stands out (in a bad way) I try NOT to notice the actual writing. The better the writer, the more immersed I am in their story - not technique. Took me awhile to understand (in mind not on paper) how to use commas, colons and semicolons - you better believe I'm gonna use them ;)
Thanks for more tips !

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Molli, I love these grammar topics. I certainly noticed a trend for short sentences as I went through my Harlequins for that paper. The newest one I read felt very straightforward, which is great for adding punch or effect to a statement, but rather less effective when every sentence does the same. Even reading silently, mental rhythm is important, and increases the pleasure of reading.

One of my university profs had a good little reminder I found for using semicolons; he said they should be used so the second sentence improves on the first. It can either expand on or reinforce a point (--;--), or it can skew or alter the point (--;||), but it still needs to be on the same topic. Saying, "I am going for a walk today; I have three cats" may be fine to a word processor's grammar check, since they're complete sentences, but it's pointless as the two are separate ideas.

My prof was in the opposing school of thought to you when it comes to comma placement though, and it's an area I never seem to find a definitive word on. They emerged as breathing marks for actors delivering lines, and they help string things together that are related to, but not connected to, the core verb of the sentence (such as that woman walking on, her head held high), but these days it seems people want them to do either/both, and I don't think they can work that loosely.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Molli,
I don't know that I've noticed shorter sentences overall in romance writing. If there is such a trend, perhaps it's because some romance novels have become shorter, and maybe writers have found it necessary to edit their work.

I try (not sure I always succeed) to vary the lengths of my sentences so that they don't sound monotonous or sing-song. There are times when you want shorter sentences, like times of high tension when you want the pace to be very fast.

I don't use colons and semi-colons much in my romance writing. For some reason, these punctution marks seem very "business-like" to me and don't really suit romance writing. Am I totally off base there or do others think that way too? However, in my business writing at the day job, the colon and semi-colon are my favorite forms of punctuation!

Thanks for the tips, Molli!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Yes, Molli, there's a definite preference in writing short sentences but it's not necessarily because an author is new. It has to do with editors asking for shorter sentences with the newbies and letting the more established authors continue in their own fashion.

Shorter sentences equates to tighter writing. Tighter writing equates to faster pacing. Faster pacing is what Harlequin wants these days. A fast read so you can get your fix and go on to the next one.

I've never used colons or semi-colons because the only time I've seen them is in the older books. Maybe if I were to write a book where I want it to have the feel of long ago, but the general rule at Harlequin, anyway is to stay away from them.

Karyn Good said...

I have to say I seldom use semi-colons or colons. My bad! Although I seem to have developed a love of exclamation points!

I do try to vary the lengths of my sentences but invariably they end up on the shorter side. That's what I like to read and that's the way they come to me. Short, punchy, and to the point. Harlequin here I come!

Janet said...

Yikes - Grammar! I was notorious for using too many commas in my university papers and decided to combat the issue with semi-colons. I mostly ended up with red marks all over the paper that prompted me to neglect all forms of the nasty comma beast and its close cousin the colon sisters. To this day I prefer a lovely run-on sentence! Editing continues to be a long process.

Great post, Molli. Love these grammar lessons. Maybe now in my 'older' age, I'll heed the rules and become a more grammatically correct writer.

Helena said...

I'm with Jana - I like some variety in the length of sentences. Length does contribute to pace, and sometimes a longer flowing sentence brings with it a different mood as well. I don't like the choppiness that sometimes comes with shorter sentences. However, short sometimes brings a needed punch, and are generally needed in action scenes.

I'm trying to get out of the habit of using semi-colons, thereby moving to shorter sentences. I think contemporary fiction, romance definitely, requires that. It definitely doesn't bother me if they are used, as long as used correctly. I'm like Ban, if the story is good and the punctuation is correctly used, I don't notice it. I do notice stuff that's wrong. (Except in my own stuff, and particularly when I'm commenting!)

Molli said...

Thanks all for taking time to comment. Given that punctuation is a, ahem, somewhat dry subject, I'm always both pleased, and a bit surprised, with the reactions you give. And frankly, I have no problem with breaking the rules as long as it's done intentionally (as I just did), or at least without unintended results.