Sunday, June 29, 2008

Eats, Shoots And Leaves.... grammar may be different in outer space

I took the title of Lynne Truss's superb bestseller because this isn't intended as a public argument about copy-editing and the serial comma.

It seems to me that publishers' guidelines pay lip service to the serial comma, but cheerfully sacrifice it if it is felt that the reader won't notice, and the page would be visually more appealing with fewer commas.

Does anyone else feel that way?

I've read a lot of grammar manuals in my time, much of it too esoteric for the modern world, and one of the most sensible comments I ever saw was to the effect that punctuation is a courtesy to the reader, to remove ambiguity as to what the author intended.

A very useful convention in science fiction is the use of an initial capital, or else of italics, to show that a word is being used in an unusual (un-American) sense.

There is a difference between "his Mating Ceremony", "his mating ceremony", and "his Mating ceremony".

Isn't there?

By the way, I deliberately put the inverted commas before the commas.

Maybe I'm too much of a word geek, or maybe the language has moved on and I haven't, or maybe it's because I'm stubborn and British educated, but I do sometimes wonder whether I am alone (violins) in thinking that there should be handbook --a supplement-- to the standard manuals for FFandP writing.

Is there one already?

Best wishes,
Rowena Cherry


  1. I'm a big fan of serial commas, doubtless abetted by the fact that in my day job (legislative editor for the General Assembly of Maryland), they are required. One of my publishers eschews them, a practice that makes me twitchy. I can live with it, though, since it's a legitimate stylistic alternative (although it CAN produce ambiguity, so I can't understand why it's preferred by so many). What drives me crazy is the same publisher's written policy of reducing commas to the absolute minimum, a policy even my editor doesn't care for. The stated reason is that "too many" commas "distract" the reader. Not me! What distracts me is having to reread a sentence to decode the author's meaning because the expected punctuation cues are missing.

    I'm used to the U.S. convention that all periods and commas, regardless of context, go inside quotation marks. Seeing the opposite looks "wrong" to me (although, admittedly, it's more logical), except at work; the Annotated Code of Maryland places quote marks outside punctuation in all cases except where the punctuation is part of the quote -- understandably, because this is LAW and must be unambiguous.

    The standard example of the pitfalls of a missing serial comma is, "I owe everything to my parents, Ayn Rand and God." I once had an essay retyped before copyediting (goodness knows why) by an anthology editor who left out my second comma in the phrase, "Dracula's brides, Lucy and Mina" -- making it appear that the two names are in apposition with "Dracula's brides." In fact, it was supposed to be a series of three items. Of course, I could have set up the sentence to be confusion-proof to begin with, but I didn't think of that until I had to correct the "correction" in the edited MS.

  2. BTW, how can we encourage more comments? Anybody out there?? :) I mention the blog's URL in every issue of my monthly newsletter. My own comment on this post of Rowena's is the first comment in over a week. I get jealous of Suzette Haden Elgin, whose wonderful blog gets a handful of comments for even the briefest post and regularly 30, 40, or more for any complex topic.

  3. Of course we'll leave comments, it's what we do best. (like the comma I slipped in there?) My grade 3 teacher, Mrs Nevison, taught my class exact English, and if we got it wrong, well the cane came out and our fingers knew it. So I have this in built fear factor when I see grammatical shifts that have occurred lately in the publishing world. The cane's coming out.

  4. Margaret,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    Wouldn't --doesn't-- "his mating ceremony," "his Mating Ceremony," "his Mating ceremony" look weird?

    I've never seen double inverted commas separated only by a space.

    Sometimes I deliberate rewrite a sentence to avoid ending with a quotation within a line of prose!

    Once upon a time, before I wrote for Dorchester, an editor took a simple command by an Emperor:

    "Take her away!"

    Through punctuation it became:

    "Take her! Away!"

    I suspect that the standard convention resulted from a simplification of a rule, and someone forgot that there are (or were) exceptions to the rule.

    Thanks for the comments,


  5. Margaret,

    I agree that it is very nice to see comments, otherwise bloggers don't know whether they are wasting the time and thought that goes into blogs, and your comments on what you've read and seen are always fascinating reading.

    Have you checked to see how many people have "favorited" this blog?

    It seems to me, often the blogger covers everything useful to be said on a topic. Also, signing in, solving the word puzzle etc is too much effort.

    Best wishes,

  6. Natalie,

    Thank you for your comment. OK, I have to ask. Is it your indomitable Mrs. Nevison who is getting out the cane to whack the publishers?

    Or --oh, happy day!-- are the publishers getting out the cane and applying it to their authors and copy editors?


  7. I'm curious as to what proof publishers have that too many commas are distracting. I had no idea that was an issue. I have a sinking feeling it's because they want to simplify text in order to appeal to the widest possible audience.

    Re: commenting, I noticed that a few of mine haven't shown up lately. Maybe they got lost in space or something...unless the moderation change caused a backlog??

    I understand the need to moderate, but seeing one's comment immediately provides good positive reinforcement.

  8. Heather,

    Sorry to hear that some of your comments didn't get through. We had a perceived spam problem for a while, and the Google bots put us on moderation.



  9. Well, this certainly explains why some things are so hard for me to read. The rules changed, apparently, and nobody told me about it. They're trying to dumb us all down, I tell ya!

  10. Thanks for clarifying, Rowena! I was wondering.