Occasionally—and frustratingly—the hats collide when one function strays over into another. For example, I am the Senior Publications Editor at JournalStone Publications, which means that when working with a manuscript, I need to be alert to anything that impedes the flow of the narrative while simultaneously remaining as true as possible to the words and rhythms of that most marvelous of creatures, the author.
I am also a reviewer for my own site, Collings Notes (michaelrcollings.blogspot.com), for Hellnotes (hellnotes.com) and for Dark Discoveries. When I wear that hat, I am responsible for assessing the effectiveness of narrative, taking into account as many elements of writing as possible.
Once in a while, however, I find these two hats at odds with each other. I recently read a novel that had compelling characters; a well-constructed story; a clear setting; and a distinct beginning, middle, and end—in a nutshell, the author had conceived of an intriguing story, structured it imaginatively and interestingly, and told it well.
Or almost well.
By the time I finished the novel, I was frustrated.
The reviewer in me wanted to conclude that this was a strong story that deserved an equally strong review. The editor in me, however, balked.
The problem rested, not with the story per se, but with the words used to tell it. At the level of editing—correcting grammar, spelling, punctuation, syntax that might otherwise create distractions and derail the story—there were so many problems that they eventually took over. The story as story dissipated and finally disappeared.
In this instance, the problems dealt primarily with punctuation, with the all-too-common sense among many authors and editors alike that little things like commas and hyphens really don’t matter that much. If you want a pause in a sentence, throw in a comma, regardless of how that actually changes meaning. Or, if you wish, just leave such trivialities out altogether.
At the moment, there are two popular memes on the social networks, designed to remind people that punctuation counts.
One is a sentence that reads:
I enjoy cooking
and my family.
Writing the words on a single line reveals the essential problem: “I enjoy cooking my pets and my family”—a truly horrific meal in progress, presumably. The solution to the problem: two small commas: “I enjoy cooking, my pets, and my family”—three creditable activities although, one hopes, listed in reverse order of importance.
The second meme is similar but even shorter: “Let’s eat kids.” Again, a rather carnivorous, not to say cannibalistic intent worthy of Jonathan Swift at his most satirical. Add a comma, and we get: “Let’s eat, kids.” An entirely different statement.
As I thought about the problem, I came up with six words that, depending on how one punctuates them, are capable of several meanings:
He watched the grandmother eating bear.
Surface level, as punctuated—a man is watching an elderly woman consuming the flesh of a bear. Perhaps from a historical novel, perhaps from a novel about survival in the wilderness, but either way, perfectly acceptable.
Add a comma, however, and the meaning shifts:
He watched the grandmother, eating bear.
Now the man, whoever he is, is contentedly observing the elderly woman while he chows down on his evening meal of bear steak. Same words; different action.
To ring yet another change, delete the comma and add…a hyphen:
He watched the grandmother-eating bear.
By indicating that grandmother and bear are connected as a two-part adjective, the sentence now asserts that the man is hot on the trail of a man-eating (or grandmother-eating) carnivore and, having located it, is watching it…presumably prefatory to killing it.
[By the way, the possibilities of ambiguity and misunderstanding increase if homonyms come into play: bare instead of bear—something that SpellCheck won’t pick up.]
Granted, these sentences are contrived. In novel after novel, story after story, however, it is fairly easy to find parallel structures that—through the positioning of a comma or a hyphen, or the lack of same—assert a meaning wildly at odds with the tone and movement of the story.
“But the context will make it clear,” some will say, impatient at what appears to them as nitpicking.
True. It will.
But in the period, however brief, between initially reading such a sentence and fitting it into the context of the story, there is necessarily a pause, a break, a moment’s hesitation that for that instant fractures the story. And enough of those small moments, enough of those uneasy junctures, and there is the danger that the reader will not only back up sufficiently to put the sentence into context but will back out of the story completely.
That is a danger no writer should be willing to risk.