Friday, February 5, 2016
For years, mistakenly, I've fancied myself a writer. I'm fascinated by the ability to string words together into sentences, frequently too long, while enjoying the thrill of creation. I get carried away.
I should read 'Words Fail Me' more often. It is a wonderful book for anyone who writes or aspires to, and I'd like to reprint a couple of parts of it here to show how it goes. Chapter 12, 'Too Marvelous for Words', begins: Like a superhighway, the sentence is a triumph of engineering: the stately capital letter, the procession of words in their proper order, every arch and tunnel, bridge and buttress perfectly fitted to its job.
It continues: If many writers believe bigger is better, who can blame them? Building a sentence can give you a thrill. It's easy to become infatuated with your own words, and once you get started you hate to stop. The noble pageant goes on and on, especially if you've discovered dashes and semicolons, and gluey words like however and nevertheless. Your mighty sentence swells, as does your head.
And that, Dear Reader, is a too-accurate description of my writing style. The rest of that chapter suggests what to do about it. Yesterday on Facebook, the subject of punctuation came up. So let's move along to Chapter 18, 'Grammar Moses', Thou Shalt Not Embarrass Thyself. Patricia says, "I certainly can't tell you in a few paragraphs everything you need to know about punctuation. But I can hit the high spots, the problems that show up most often."
Then she continues:
* A comma by itself usually isn't enough to hold together two expressions that could be separate sentences: Jack broke his crown, Jill wasn't seriously injured. (This is sometimes called a run-on sentence.) If you want to join those expressions with a comma, add a linking word, like and or but: Jack broke his crown, but Jill wasn't seriously injured. There's more on joining parts of a sentence in chapter 12.
* The semicolon may be the most unappreciated and underused punctuation mark. If you find semicolons intimidating, relax. They're handy for joining expressions that could stand alone, like the ones above: Jack broke his crown; Jill wasn't seriously injured. Semicolons can also be used to tidy up a series of items with commas inside them. Imagine how hard it would be to read this sentence if only commas were used: Jack broke his crown, which was fractured in two places; scraped his knee, nearly to the bone; and ruined his lederhosen. Lincoln found the semicolon a "useful little chap"; you will, too.
* Dashes and parentheses shouldn't be abused. They do roughly the same thing - they let the writer say something (like this) in an aside - though dashes are somewhat more in-your-face. If your writing breaks out in dashes, try using parentheses for variety (and vice versa). But if commas would work as well, as they often do, use them instead.
I don't want to copy too much of Pat's wonderfully helpful book, but I suggest you try to find your own at a bookstore near you. It's from Harcourt Brace & Company, and the ISBN is 0-15-100371-8.