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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· Punctuated Equilibrium: Louis Menand Takes On Lynne Truss ·

Louis Menand's New Yorker review of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation caught my eye recently — or rather, to be more exact, caught my stylish ear.

How exactly? Well, with a New York bang in that Bad Comma (6/28/04), like Menand's The End Note: The Nightmare of Citation (10/6/03), counterpoints a pair of classically-related compositional matters. They are, to be precise, vexed matters of common orthographical space (punctuation/citation rules) and verbal-logical time (personal/tonal rhythms). Generally, they are matters of eye and ear.

You may recall I tried to note them in Blue-End Note: Louis Menand Sings "Chicago Blues" — where I alluded to the late great Ray Charles (whose happy caricature graces the New Yorker's recent cover). In any case, as I start for some needed "Stylechoice" talk in Minnesota, I thought to adduce Menand's lead and to leave such matters for your critical analysis. Do maybe enjoy the challenge while I'm gone.
 · Eats, Shoots & Leaves ·

The first punctuation mistake in "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" [Menand begins] (Gotham; $17.50), by Lynne Truss, a British writer, appears in the dedication, where a nonrestrictive clause is not preceded by a comma. It is a wild ride downhill from there. "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" presents itself as a call to arms, in a world spinning rapidly into subliteracy, by a hip yet unapologetic curmudgeon, a stickler for the rules of writing. But it's hard to fend off the suspicion that the whole thing might be a hoax.*

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· My Students Find "Interesting" Punctuations ·

"There are some punctuations that are interesting," said Gertrude Stein, "and there are some that are not." Stein's judgment, quoted from Joseph M. Williams's Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, I have long found helpful in my teaching. The marks we silently take for granted, I've discovered, make for useful classroom conversation.

Typically, after introducing my students to the two chief means of grasping punctuation ("regulatory" and "syntactical" I call them), I turn everyone loose diligently looking for "interesting" punctuations. My students take to the task well, finding in what they have first read for pleasure larger lessons in compositional technique.

For fun I have thought to share two such finds. Each comes from a now-dated class textbook handy for reference, Lynn Bloom and Edward White's Inquiry: A Cross-Curricular Reader. You, too, might find my students' punctuations "interesting."

Begging what I call "regulatory" questions, the first comes from Mike Rose's short essay, "'I Just Wanna Be Average'":

We were talking about the parable of the talents, about achievement, working hard, doing the best you can do, blah-blah-blah, when the teacher called on the restive Ken Harvey for an opinion. Ken thought about it, but just for a second, and said (with studied, minimal effect), "I just wanna be average." That woke me up. Average?! Who wants to be average? Mike Rose, 'I Just Wanna Be Average,' Inquiry: A Cross-Curricular Reader, eds. Lynn Z. Bloom and Edward M. White, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993, 72-73.

You can imagine my students' response. They like, of course, Rose's hyphenated boredom ("blah-blah-blah"), his paused, adjectival aside ("with studied, minimal effect"), his one solecism ("wanna"), and, mostly, his equivocal end-punctuation on "Average?!" "But is that right?" they ask, and I reply: "But of course! Was Rose here following some stuffy, single-minded grammarian's 'pointing rule'?"

My students take even more, however, to John Updike's "syntactical" stretch in his fine autobiographical essay, "At War with my Skin":

My mother tells me up till age six I had no psoriasis; it came on strong after an attack of the measles in February of 1938, when I was in kindergarten. The disease — "disease" seems strong, for a condition that is not contagious, painful, or debilitating; yet psoriasis has the volatility of a disease, the sense of another presence coöcupying your body and singling you out from the happy herds of healthy, normal mankind — first attached itself to my memory while I was lying on the upstairs side porch of the Shillington house, amid the sickly, oleaginous smell of Siroil, on fuzzy sun-warmed towels, with my mother, sunbathing. John Updike, 'At War with My Skin,' Inquiry: A Cross-Curricular Reader, eds. Lynn Z. Bloom and Edward M. White, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993, 50-51.

You can imagine my students' take. After traversing Updike's semicolonized lead sentence ("Svc; svc" is his pattern), they "gasp" inquisitively at a writer's deft style dashing their hopes for some subject-verb closure in his longer second sentence ("S — svc; svc — vc, c, c, c"). "Can Updike do that?" they ask, amused by his lengthy, comma-filled sentence ending. "Well, he did, didn't he? It's a stretch," I say, "but — hey! — if your old skin is rather inelastic, why not limber up your syntax? For Updike it's verbal gymnastics."

Students of course get my point, as they get, too, Victor Borge's in a still more stylish take on punctuation, happily recorded (even if without his accompanying story) partially online. Do enjoy.

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· Mark, Mark, that Exclamation ·

Mark indeed! My, my, how could I forget? Of course!

I hope that since I posted last you haven't forgotten me! All this writing is tricky, especially during finals, and as I've had to lie low here after drafting a crafty holiday letter, I thought today to relieve myself of some unused energy! As you can see, I am trying!

And what should come to my aid but an old email from my sister! Yes — and here's how the lovely Stylesweet starts!

 · Mark's Point  · Hi, Styles, I've been corresponding with this very erudite young college student named Mark. He doesn't know if we are related or not or where he got my address. But he wrote such a scholarly piece the first time that I thought you had crafted it. Anyway, I wrote back for his identity and told him about you, and in the course of our correspondence the subject of exclamation points came up.

This was his reply. (I think he expresses my feelings about them very well. He attends the University of Georgia — a senior. He teaches piano but majors in English lit.) Maybe you would like to get into a conversation with him. We are enjoying ours, even though I could be his grandmother!

Well, I was intrigued and found myself taken, indeed, by Mark's style.

Perhaps Styles [he says] is more of a structuralist than I. Whereas he probably looks for consistency, structure, and some "truthful" correctness to the style of writing, I don't mind subverting these standards. Do you ever watch the Sienfeld show? They did a skit concerning one of the character's proclivity towards exclamation points within her writing, with the suggestion that such marks are incorrect! The sad exclamation point does tend to dramatize and romanticize things, and it does impart an informal flavor. However it serves a very specific purpose, especially in a hypertextual society where words provide only a portion of essential communication. Furthermore, it's purpose (exclamation) is especially useful in a particularly fluid, conversational medium such as Electronic Mail! Quite often, I find myself using two of them!! Maybe the exclamation point is overbearing, but it seems more clearly to illustrate the emotions and the message of the author, albeit informally. But we're not submitting any formal dissertations any time soon!

So what did I say? Only this:

After clearing my throat twice (piano the first time and forte the second) I can safely respond here to Mark's delightful note. I can tell that he, too, has read the usual post-structuralists, Derrida, Barthes, et al., whose playful, witty-wise proclivity for orthographical expression I have also read with pleasure. Mark's wrong to think I'm a "structuralist," though, since in spite of my phonocentric metaphor "expression," I'm only "methodical" — although I do believe I am thus politically, religiously, and academically non-sectarian. So I must still cite John Trimble's apt ripost: "Avoid exclamation points, which have been cheapened by comic-strip cartoonists (who haven't yet discovered the period) and by advertising copywriters. . . . " Though Mark may find Trimble too elliptical, don't you think Trimble at least direct? I know I do. Do perhaps find his book Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing (1975, 2000). Who knows, Mark may someday have taught (just like Trimble and me) America's ever-expressive freshmen for over three decades.

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· Twain's Helpful Middle Marks: Colons and Semicolons ·

Yesterday I chanced to read Donald Barthelme's essay "Not-Knowing" (1985). Barthelme interestingly writes there that

[i]t's appropriate to pause and say that the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do. . . . This is not to say that I don't know anything . . . but what I do know comes into being at the instant it's inscribed. Donald Barthelme, 'Not Knowing,' The Art of the Essay, ed. Lydia Fakundiny, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991, 485; below 495.

As I hold to such a view, I was taken by Barthelme's nicely-turned variation on an old writer's query, "How do I know what I'm going to say until I say it?" But I was also puzzled, for, in a later paragraph beginning "Style is not much a matter of choice," he paused then to ask: "Why do I avoid, as much as possible, using the semicolon? Let me be plain: the semicolon is ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog's belly. I pinch them out of my prose."

As I've lately written here, "I'm in academic Nirvana; I have died and gone to heaven!" I was fascinated. Being committeeless, as I explained, I was quite free to weigh the matter of choice and determinism with respect to what I sometimes call style's helpful "middle marks," colons and semicolons.

They are, of course, often tricky. In his fine book Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, John Trimble suggests that they're in fact advanced: "The average college student isn't ready for semicolons," he claims, and by implication, only semi-ready for colons. His main example (one I've employed ever since Writing with Style first appeared in 1975) is from Adlai Stevenson:

A beauty is a woman you notice; a charmer is one who notices you. John Trimble, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, 2nd ed., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000, 107; above 105.

Although we smile at the linkage, our pleasure comes mostly from Stevenson's semicolon. Try, in paradigmatic substitution, these other alternative linkages:

A beauty. A charmer. (Nicely periodic but clunky.)
A beauty, and a charmer. (Now coordinate but thoughtless.)
A beauty, but a charmer. (Still coordinate but obvious.)
A beauty, a charmer. (Happily comedic but splicy.)
A beauty, while a charmer. (Maybe explanatory but stuffy.)
A beauty a charmer. (Run-together but obviously illiterate.)

So why is Barthelme so determined, I asked myself, to pinch all semicolons out of his prose? Maybe because his dog, I answered, hasn't yet been trained to "mark" their utility.

Which raises novelist Mark Twain's famous use of the colon and semicolon together.

Training is everything: the peach was once a bitter almond; caulliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education. John Trimble, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, 2nd ed., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000, 108.

Your students, employees, friends, or colleagues might now value "Twain's Helpful Middle Marks." Taken together they mean, of course, "Smooth Sailing: Two Fathoms Deep."

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· People \ Events \ Ideas \ Implications \ . . .   ·

At last I broke out of my trivial pattern above, although I'm worried still about my three spaced periods. What convention, I ask, determines the trivial set we call ellipses marks — some divine revelation or some human convention? To have broken free does help, however, although I'm afraid I've today another set to share.

They came, trivially, from a friend's e-mail:

Small minds discuss people.

Average minds discuss events.

Great minds discuss ideas.

For the moment their meaning is at least patently clear to me:

People: Three Classes of Students.

Events: Tests and Papers Given in Each One of Them This Week.

Ideas: My Now Having to Do Simple Justice By Them.

So what of their Added Fourth & Fifth Dimensions?

We are all, indeed, small, average, and great at once!

And, of course . . .

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· St. Augustine Reading — Silently ·

 · Credo ut Intelligam, Intelligo ut Credam ·

My last entry on punctuation has prompted a related thought on reading. The image at right is not, however, its immediate occasion.

Indeed, Bennozo Gozolli's St. Augustine Reading the Epistle of St. Paul — the tenth of seventeen famous frescoes in Sant' Agostino Church in San Gimignano, Italy, 1465 — is not here properly its apt expression or, better, visualization. Neither, for that matter, are Gozolli's depicted characters — St. Augustine and his intellectual friend Alypius — even the immediate subjects of my thought. Rather, they are Alberto Manguel and Stylish (my wife and intellectual friend), who, some years back in an extended review of Manguel's A History of Reading, wrote this intriguing paragraph:

We also take for granted that most adults read silently. But imagine seeing for the first time someone reading silently rather than orally. That is what Saint Augustine describes in his Confessions when he sees his master, Saint Ambrose of Milan, reading silently. According to Manguel, Augustine's description is the first definite instance recorded in Western literature. Augustine, a professor of Latin rhetoric, found himself — reportedly in 384 A.D. — unable to ask Ambrose the questions about matters of faith that were troubling him, because, as Augustine explains, when Ambrose was not eating a frugal meal or entertaining one of his many admirers, he was alone in his cell, reading. Augustine describes the strange observation: "When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still." Manguel explains that not until the tenth century does silent reading become usual in the West.

My thought is simply this: just as we learned in the West gradually to mark words with visible writing spaces, so gradually we learned (as in the two scenes "depicted" and "described" above) to observe related reading silences. Both, of course, may just be twin aspects of a definition of style, appointed spaces and appointed times — marked, we might say, for reflection. I don't quite know what to make of them, save perhaps to recall E. B. White's famous dictum on writing: "Writing is an act of faith," he said, "not a trick of grammar." I think old St. Augustine would agree. So you're looking for the source, too? I sadly mislaid my old copy of Strunk & White! Just take his words on faith.

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· (Un)pointed Takes on Style (Mis)delineated ·

I spent a couple of class hours today on the topic of punctuation. If you're suppressing a yawn, I'm sorry, but I thought I might share my take on the subject anyway — "schoolstyle," as I like to say. If you are tired, by all means sleep, but please try not to snore. I don't mind subjunctively underjoined students in the classroom, just log-sawyers who doze, alas, 'too noisily.'

The lesson was historical, beginning so:


It was like the Fall of Man when some "woman" naturally got the point about spacing, I said.

That's when we got flows like this:

woman without her man is in paradise

You can image the bloody battle that followed — sharp swords of punctuation drawn — with half my class going at the other half's jugular, so to speak.

"Woman, without her man, is in paradise," some said.

"Woman! Without her, man is in paradise," replied others.

The noise was awful, and the blood worse (I hate to see young people sacrificing themselves so).

But judging from some Dear-John letters I then shared, you'd hardly know who won at last. You can see why for yourselves:

Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?


Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours?


As you can see, punctuation is problematic.

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