Monthly Archives: September 2012

Grammar Questions

Early in his career, English footballer Michael Owen celebrated goals by rubbing his hands together in a joyous “Goody! Goody! Goody!” show of enthusiasm. Book lovers feel something similar when learning of a book that captures their imagination and produces a swell of anticipation that is almost inevitably more expansive than whatever pleasures the book has in store.

I felt such a surge after reading reviews for a collection of stories by Lydia Davis, an author whose works I was unfamiliar with. I particularly enjoy short stories, and she is a short story writer of much acclaim, as evidenced by the following praise for The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis:

“A body of work probably unique in American writing . . . I suspect that The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis will in time be seen as one of the great, strange American literary contributions” (James Wood, The New Yorker).

“Magnificent . . . Davis has made one of the great books in recent literature, equal parts horse sense and heartache” (Dan Chiasson, The New York Review of Books).

One of the reviews for the collection mentioned the story “Grammar Questions,” in which the narrator, whose father is dying, employs a kind of grammatical logic to explore her emotional landscape. A father of two wonderful children, I have a disastrous relationship with my own father, so I am drawn to stories of fathers for two very different reasons. (Not surprisingly, I was greatly affected by both the father-and-son relationship in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the fatherly role Wolgast establishes with Amy in Justin Cronin’s The Passage.)

And the story involves grammar. Goody! Goody! Goody!

“Grammar Questions” is a damn good story, and I would recommend exploring Lydia Davis’s work. In addition to being a finely wrought contemplation of death, the story provides numerous examples of the proper use of punctuation with quotation marks. At the end of a sentence, a question mark or exclamation point goes inside the quotation marks if it applies to the quoted material. The mark goes outside the quotation marks if it applies to the sentence as a whole.

Look at the following examples from the story:

Now, during the time he is dying, can I say, “This is where he lives”?

and

If someone asks me, “Where does he live?” should I answer, “Well, right now he is not living, he is dying”?

Style Note: Titles of novels, albums, and collections, such as The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, are generally set in italics. Short stories, poems, and songs are generally enclosed by quotation marks.

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I Can’t Take Any More of This! I Can’t Take It Anymore!

Early Saturday on my balcony. September. Over the horizon, the sun idles, seemingly as cool as the morning air. My coffee steams. I treasure this time for reading and shouldn’t let anything spoil my enjoyment of an entertaining tale. Yet even the smallest editing mistakes can do just that.

When the scene above played out, I was reading a horror anthology on my Kindle, where one can expect to find a host of errors: missing hyphens, random hyphens, words run together, and other such issues. (To be fair, some e-books are better edited and formatted than others, and this is a problem with e-books in general and not with any particular device.)

The errors, though, were particularly bothersome because they occurred in a story written by a crime writer of immense talent. It’s much easier to dismiss these kinds of glitches when you’re not thoroughly enthralled by the story.

The first error was the misuse of anymore, which is properly employed as an adverb: “I don’t eat meat anymore.” However, when used as an adjective, one should write it as two words: “I can’t eat any more meat.”

The other thing that caught my eye (and took me out of the book!) was an incorrect punctuation mark. An apostrophe is used to indicate the omission of letters, such as in the contraction can’t. When letters are omitted at the beginning of the word, such as with ’Stang (if, for instance, you wanted to shorten Mustang), then you place an apostrophe at the beginning of the word. You do not place a single opening quote; the apostrophe always faces in the same direction and always looks like a single end quote.

The difficulty is that word-processor programs assume that you want a single opening quote even when you want an apostrophe, so pasting in the proper mark requires a little bit of effort. I know of one reader, however, who will appreciate that effort, and he’s sitting in my chair. ’Tis true!

Fall Reading: I’ve decided to wait (or at least attempt to wait) until January to read the two most recent books in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. Reading those novels in the dead of winter is too delicious a prospect to pass up. I’m currently reading the gonzo horror novel John Dies at the End by David Wong and am fairly salivating at the thought of two upcoming releases: Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth and Justin Cronin’s The Twelve. Both are major publishing events. I’ve already placed my order for the signed, limited edition of The Twelve being released by Cemetery Dance, who produced a beautiful edition of the book’s predecessor, The Passage.

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Words That Shimmer

A word or phrase that conveys nothing but its surface meaning to one person brings with it a whole host of associations for someone else. Literature—great and otherwise—abounds with allusion, so one is never just reading a single work but also all of the works being referenced. Scholars happily—and, yes, smugly, often insufferably so—spend their lives picking out allusions from works like James Joyce’s Ulysses.

To fully appreciate an author’s work, and the context of that work, one would have to read all the books that that author had read, but then one might as well assert that a person would have to live through all of that author’s experiences as well. Even if one were to attempt either, both paths are blocked by obvious limitations. Even so, and without going too far down the road toward Pretentious Assville, I can say that there’s a great deal of joy to be had by welcoming other works into what would otherwise be a single, isolated reading experience.

After complete, happy immersion in Dan Simmons’s novel The Terror, which I picked up after Stephen King named it to one of his best-of-the-year lists, I grew more and more eager for Simmons’s next novel, Drood. Because Drood concerned Charles Dickens, and particularly his last, unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I read that in anticipation of Simmons’s novel. I also realized that I should read Bleak House as well, as Simmons’s Drood contains a counterpart to Bleak House’s marvelously drawn character Inspector Bucket.

Simmons’s Drood is told from the perspective of Dickens’s contemporary Wilkie Collins, a successful writer in his own right, but a lesser light than Dickens by far, and an opium addict to boot. (In Simmons’s novel, Collins quaffs laudanum by the glassful.)

Having read both The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Bleak House (which to that point I should have read long before anyway!), I dove into Simmons’s Drood. I wasn’t far into the novel, however, before I realized that I should read Collins’s work as well, because it was heavily referenced in the text. So I read Collins’s The Moonstone, read a bit more of Simmons’s Drood, read Collins’s The Woman in White, and then finished Drood.

The inclusion of these other works in my journey through Drood resulted in a nourishing, cathedral-sized expansion of the reading experience. So often allusions feel impossibly far off from the work referencing them. They can feel like something dead spoken of by the living, but in this experience, the works seemed to interact and speak to each other as though they were doing so in the present.

***

The thoughts above resulted from a reflection on my previous post (“Toast”), in which I used two words, passing and limelight, that shimmer for me. Some words do that, whether they reference a song or a movie or a novel. I’ve encountered passing, in its archaic meaning of “surpassing,” most recently in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, and I’ve always loved that particular usage. Because my last post involved the NFL, I could not resist employing the phrase “passing strange,” for obvious reasons.

As for limelight, there’s a great quote in the enjoyable—but decidedly not-great—thriller Ricochet, in which Lindsay Wagner (the Bionic Woman, of course) says to Denzel Washington, “You wanted to be in the limelight. It’s a hot seat now, pal.” If I ever happen upon a situation in which I can use that line, you can be damn sure I’ll drop it without shame or hesitation. In the meantime, I’ll slip in limelight on its own from time to time, and, even if I’m the only one who knows why, I’ll enjoy the way it shimmers.

***

A few grammar notes:

Traditionally, the possessive of singular nouns ending in s is formed by adding apostrophe-s, so you would have “Dickens’s” and “Simmons’s.” Associated Press (AP) style, which most newspapers follow, however, does not employ the final s, so you would write “Dickens’ literary acumen.” People will try to beat you over the head with what’s right and wrong, but as with so many of these arguments, it’s a style issue.

Titles of works are generally set in italics, but when forming a possessive of a title (and whether you should do so or not is another argument), set the title in italics but the apostrophe-s in roman (non-italic) font.

The names of book series, such as Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, are not set in italics. Also note that series can be either singular or plural.

When using words as words (“the word limelight”), set that word in italics.

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Toast

I’ve never applied eye black before tackling a manuscript. My reading glasses, I’ll readily admit, don’t even come close to saying badass the way that eye black does. Still, with the kickoff of the NFL season scant hours away, it occurs to me that there’s a position on the gridiron not all too dissimilar to that of copy editor: the cornerback.

Strange, you might think (or passing strange), to compare a position held by one of the world’s finest athletes to the role of copy editor, but there’s one obvious link: a copy editor, like a cornerback, can only screw up. We can only get burned.

If a copy editor does his or her job correctly, no one notices. By the same token, if a cornerback shuts down a receiver, the ball doesn’t get thrown to that side of the field, and the corner and receiver might as well be invisible. It’s only when the receiver slips behind the defense and hauls in a big gain that the now-hapless-looking corner gets his name called. Any editor who’s missed something (and all editors miss from time to time) knows that feeling of getting schooled. (Thankfully, our moments of shame aren’t broadcast on national television.)

Like a corner who’s just bitten on a really good fake, all we can do is shake it off, try to learn something from the experience, and remind ourselves that we’re damned good at what we do. What just happened won’t happen again. Not on my watch.

I don’t want to completely discount our moments of glory, either. Snagging an interception and taking it to the house is a surefire way to bring a crowd (happily spilling beer and overpriced concessions) to its feet. Copy editors enjoy their own time in the limelight, even if pointing out a dangling participle isn’t likely to make any sports channel’s top-ten plays of the day.

These moments, however, are few and far between. Our lot is to toil in obscurity, the garbage men of publishing, cleaning up unsightly errors while the rest of the world sleeps.

I enjoy my work. I think it a noble profession. I like leaving a manuscript in better shape than I found it.

I’m happy to play my position.

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