You jolly nearly had to do without a blog this week: following some updates that were downloaded by Microsoft and which were then automatically configured when I switched it on yesterday morning, my computer refused point blank to boot up properly. This is somewhat scary at this precise moment because I have a few rather urgent tasks that were already ‘embedded’ on the hard drive.
|This is not a blog which calls for illustrations. This last week has seen the first of this winter's snowfalls in the West Country so I thought I would put up some photographs from my collection showing a few snowy scenes.|
One is rather nice: there is a girl in Poland who runs a blog all about writing and literature (actually she runs two blogs: one in Polish and one in English). Whilst the main object of the exercise is to promote Polish literature she also reviews books which have been translated into Polish and carries out email interviews with the authors of such books. Marcia had just finished her last responses and one of my first jobs was to be to email these across to Agnes.
The other urgent task was to finalise the copy editing of the next book, Summer on the River, so that Marcia’s agent, Dinah Wiener, can send the revised manuscripts to Marcia’s foreign publishers.
Panic stations. I really did now know what to do: the usual techniques of trying everything on offer and, that having failed, rebooting the computer a few times did nothing to solve the problem. This was the first “computer panic” since we moved back to the south so I had no idea who to contact. Luckily my laptop was not involved and after trawling through the various options I found on the internet I decided to contact a company called Brandan Computer Solutions Ltd. It needed a visit to put things right but all is well now and the silver lining to this particular cloud is that Marcia has met Warren Dobbs and they got on very well indeed so she now knows who to contact should anything happen when I am not around.
Thus, I am able to keep my promise and talk about punctuation.
Punctuation is one of the most difficult subjects on which to write and one of the subjects about which – in my opinion – far too much has been written already. You could say exactly the same about grammar. What is the point of punctuation (and grammar) other than to facilitate the reader’s understanding of the words that have been written?
The only other possible reason is so that the pedantic writer who follows a particular code for both grammar and punctuation can feel a glow of superiority over other writers who do not follow that code. Apart from the fact that this is a rather ignoble glow, it fails to take into account that there are many different codes and that none of them agrees in all respects. Indeed, the triad that underpins all writing (vocabulary, grammar and punctuation) are all living entities that change from moment to moment.
There was a time when the most important language in the world was French. Then the French academics – aided and abetted by some French politicians – fought hard to keep French ‘pure’: to stop French evolving in a smooth and organic fashion. Although this was not the only factor it certainly helped to ensure that English would become the language that would be understood over most of the globe.
To return to punctuation: it is my contention that good writers use it (or not, as the case may be) not only to facilitate the reader’s understanding but also to influence the reader’s mood, emotions and engagement. In other words, punctuation is one element that creates the individual styles that writers inevitably develop – and which their readers like.
As an example of what I mean: I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma and I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read.
That last sentence is a case in point. What would be the point of the Oxford comma after the word ‘comma’? In my view, the ideas expressed in that sentence are an entity even though the two phrases could each stand as separate sentences. Thus there are a number of options. The first is that shown above and the others are as follows.
I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma, and I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read. With the Oxford comma.
I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma: I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read. Using a colon to indicate that the second phrase in some way adds to the first.
I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma. I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read. Two separate sentences.
This is all about style, isn’t it? It is about creating – or not as required – flow. It is about changing the pace of the writing by using shorter or longer sentences.
The nuances involved are tiny and it is probable that few, if any, readers are at all conscious of the way a piece of writing is punctuated. You could argue that if they are there is probably something wrong. Nevertheless, as one of those three foundation stones of all writing it is terribly important and I think I detect a good deal of muddle in the punctuation of a lot of modern writing – especially in the newspapers. On the other hand it could merely be that I am stuck in my ways and what I am seeing is no more than the good old English language gently evolving to meet the needs of the modern world.