Monday, February 11, 2013

The dangers of Emily Dickinsonism

Maybe—just maybe—it comes from the current tendency—in a world of constantly bleating cellphones and multitudinous—even bewildering—distractions—but it seems to me—though this may be just an impression—that writers today—particularly—but not entirely—the younger scribes—have an inordinate fondness—perhaps even a mania—for using dashes.

While I'm as fond as anyone of the classic em dash, it can get a little distracting. That's the point—or rather, it is not the point, since the point is, as everyone knows (or maybe I should say—as everyone knows), is the period, full stop, basic end punctuation for all declarative, non-exclamatory statements. But I digress. (Digression also is a function of the dash, as well as of its brother the parenthesis.)

A dash is what you use when you want to literally make a break for it—that is, make a break in your literature. See what happened there? I broke up the sentence like a brittle twig and bent it in the middle to call attention to my little bit of wordplay. Ha! Made you look! That's what the dash does; more than any other form of punctuation, it makes the reader do a double take. "What's this?" the reader's subconscious says. "This looks like an aside. I'd better pay attention to it."

But when the dash is used too often, that break-up effect starts to interfere with the narrative flow and impede the reader's absorption of information. It can also be a crutch that unskilled writers grab whenever there's a random fact or definition they don't know how to fit into their structure, ending up with sentences like these:

Instances of road rage—numbering 87,000 in 2011 alone on U.S. streets—are on the increase.

"I've known about Mr. Varman's work on the project"—which promises to transform the field of particle physics—"for 20 years," said Lily Xavier, president of the U.S. Amateur Science Association.

If you have to break into the middle of a statement or a direct quote in a way that opens up a wide gap between the start of the thought and its conclusion, it may be an indication that you need to separate that extraneous information into its own sentence, and possibly even find a way to restate that thought.

Dashes have also taken over the roles of other forms of internal punctuation. They have supplanted the comma:

The talk-show host led the magician to the stage—where a large box and a set of props already awaited her.

They have usurped the semicolon:

An investigation found irregularities in Epgo Inc.'s finances—afterward, the company fired 10 employees in the accounting branch.

And they have committed regicide against the colon:

Five of the 200 companies that entered were awarded the Marbleton Efficiency Prize—Varma Insulators, Kryptik Lock Co., Mabronics LLC, Eames & Son HVAC, and Yurupyurdown Elevator Co.

The best way to guard against overuse of dashes is to think of the wealth of punctuation options that are available and try to employ the one that best suits the function. Sometimes you don't want a generic form of strong separation; you want a semicolon, which indicates the beginning of a related independent clause. Or, if you want a form of punctuation that will interrupt but not hijack the flow of thought, you might choose a comma. If you have a list or if you want to indicate an idea that is a direct consequence of the preceding idea, you might use a colon: It provides the needed separation, but it announces its purpose clearly because of its limited role.

An ardent fan of dashes might object that Emily Dickinson used dashes liberally in her work and was successful in communicating her ideas. It's true that she didn't so much sprinkle dashes into her poetry as pour them with a ladle, but look at how they are employed:

From Blank to Blank—
A Threadless Way
I pushed Mechanic feet—
To stop—or perish—or advance—
Alike indifferent—

If end I gained
It stands beyond
Indefinite disclosed—
I shut my eyes—and groped as well
'Twas lighter—to be Blind—

Dickinson used dashes to create a sense of space, separate out thoughts, and slow down her readers, forcing them to consider each idea separately. She knew full well the shock value of dashes, the way they arrest the eye's progress across the page, and she used them because they were what best suited her purpose, not because she was unaware of her other options.

For the prose writer, however, a full toolbox of commas, semicolons, colons, parentheses, and ellipses will help clarify meanings by serving a more specific and usually less intrusive function than the all-purpose em dash.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Keeping the Lincoln Logs straight: parallel structures

Writers have creative license to build any kind of message they wish. Like architects, they can go wild with ideas and forms. To a certain extent, a writer can bend language to her whim. But like architectural structures, sentences have to obey the laws of physics, or they fall into disorder.

The rule of parallel structures is particularly easy for writers of all levels of experience to miss. It has to do with lists and the reader's expectation, at the start of a sentence, that all the items in a given list will belong together in some way. If that expectation is thwarted, the sentence's structure is marred.

When putting together a list in a sentence, this rule states, you should make sure all the items perform the same basic function in the sentence. Many writers, in their fervor to jot down an idea, end up tossing all sorts of items together in their lists: adjectives bump up against verbs, nouns, verbals, or whatever else the writer conjures up in the moment.

Consider these examples:

1. The supreme leader of the party was distant, contemptuous, and liked to play favorites with his lieutenants.

2. In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs accused the company of polluting the river, the air, degrading the surrounding land, corruption, and malfeasance.

If we split up the first example into its components, we get a beginning and then a list of items that should match that beginning as well as each other:

The supreme leader of the party was

a. distant
b. contemptuous
c. liked to play favorites with his lieutenants

When the elements are laid out, it's easy to see that item (c) in the first sentence is the odd one out. It starts with a verb, so it doesn't match (a) and (b), which are both adjectives. Moreover, the verb doesn't refer to the word "was," which touched off the list. We can fix this by regrouping the items, based on the verb they belong to, and linking the two groups with another "and":

The supreme leader of the party [Group 1] was distant and contemptuous and [Group 2] liked to play favorites with his lieutenants.

The sentence is now functionally correct, though the two instances of "and" occurring so close together make it seem leggy and overlong. It might be more elegant to separate item (c) into another sentence, or at least make it an independent clause attached to the first sentence by a semicolon.

The supreme leader of the party was distant and contemptuous; he also liked to play favorites with his lieutenants.

The second example is harder to parse.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs accused the company of polluting:

a. the river
b. the air
c. degrading the surrounding land
d. corruption
e. malfeasance

Here we have an assortment of items and references. While (a), (b), (d), and (e) are all nouns, only (a) and (b) refer back to the gerund "polluting." Item (c), meanwhile, begins with another gerund, and items (d) and (e) don't match either "polluting" or "degrading."

So what is this list about? It should be a list of actions the company was accused of taking. If we start off with the word "of" to form our grouping, we get:

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs accused the company of:

a. polluting
     i. the river
     ii. the air
b. degrading the surrounding land
c. corruption
d. malfeasance

The items don't all begin in exactly the same way, but they all function as nouns, and together they lay out a coherent series of accusations. If we put the whole thing together, we get a sentence that hangs together much better.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs accused the company of polluting the river and the air, degrading the surrounding land, corruption, and malfeasance.

Finally, this rule also applies to lists that begin with articles such as "the," "a" and "an." Often, the writer of a list neglects to make sure the items all take the same article or restates a word when it already applies to an item:

Discoveries in this area could be beneficial to the bumblebee, honeybee, and the wasp.

In this case, the final "the" before "wasp" should be deleted, as "the" is already stated at the beginning of the list.

At the beginning of her career, she had been a judge, appellate lawyer, and company president.

For "appellate lawyer," which begins with a vowel sound, "an" is the proper article, so the list needs to state the proper article with each item: a judge, an appellate lawyer, and a company president.

Sorting out sentence parts by their functions isn't always easy, especially when those parts get long and complicated, but it preserves the integrity of the sentence by allowing readers to easily understand how the parts fit together. With these tools, an ambitious writer can build all the way up to the sky without causing the structure to collapse for lack of cohesion.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Making a good beginning

The best way, it is often said, to learn to write well is to read widely and keep practicing, and those are activities only the writer herself can carry on. The writer’s tool is language, and the only way to pick it up is by reading everything from Chaucer and Shakespeare to cereal boxes and learning to distinguish the subtle variations in style, voice and purpose among writers of different eras and genres. But even though no one can provide a complete set of rules that will replace the knowledge gained through reading and writing, it is possible to set out guideposts to show a clearer path to those who have already started in the right direction.

While there are plenty of existing manuals that provide advice on writing, some of the sources writers have traditionally looked to, like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, were originally composed some time ago. In the light of a new century, their edicts are in need of a thorough reexamination. The grammarians are out in full force on the Web, it is true, but this is not meant to be a column focused purely on grammar or even style. It will look at all the ingredients that make for clear and beautiful writing, because the art of writing consists of more than a collection of correct sentences.

I have spent much of my career as a professional editor, in essence a person who reads for a living. In my work, I have seen passages that impart information with simplicity and grace, and I have seen many others that garble their messages entirely. With the latter, I do what I can, patching things up here and there and reordering clauses. Still, there is only so much an editor can do to set things aright without completely changing the writer’s voice, and sometimes patching up poor grammar can lead to a sentence that is functionally correct but ungainly. It is far better to begin with a harmonious marriage of the concept and its realization. In this blog, I hope to give writers a set of principles to keep in mind at the outset, while they are composing their work, that will allow it in the end to bear a finer polish.