Friday, 9 February 2018

Comma As Muck - Editorial Battle Royals over the Comma

Before the social media age, I didn't know what an "Oxford Comma" was. But thanks to the wonder of people with too much time on their hands on Twitter, I know realise I have not only always rejected the O.C., but I will fight anyone who says I have to use a comma before the word 'and' in any circumstance, as part of a list or not. I vaguely remember being told at school that you don't put commas before 'and', which is odd, because I was probably that first generation of pupils who were given no grammar training at all as it had been dispensed with as we were to learn our mother tongue more organically. What grammar I picked up was through having to learn French and Latin in secondary school.

As a writer, I've never really thought much about grammar. I used to write stage plays and there you have to think very hard about commas, colons and ellipses for the actors who have to speak your dialogue. Since moving to prose, I've mainly written flash fiction, where with just 1000 words to play with in a story, grammar doesn't weigh too heavily on the whole.

But (another vague rule was never start a sentence with 'but') as I received my novel's proof copy edit back from my publisher last week, all of a sudden I've had to think very, very hard about grammar and in particular the humble comma. In the edit, there were no more than ten words changed, deleted or added throughout the whole book. there were maybe about another 5 tense change edits. Some style guide edits around brackets and whether the full stop went inside or outside and also if you ended a bracket with a question mark, do you still need a full stop outside the bracket? And the rest of the edits - commas deleted and commas inserted. I was asked for my comments on the proposed edits...

Dave Eggers has written a novel entirely in dialogue, but he doesn't employ speech marks. Instead each new speaker starts with a dash.

Will Self has written a book without paragraphs (and even changes narrator mid sentence and without warning).

Mathias Enard has written a book without a single full stop, that's right, the whole 500+ pages is one sentence...

These are not random acts or examples of sloppy grammar. They have made these decisions consciously for stylistic reasons. And in reviewing my proof, I realised that though probably born from an organic sense, the vast majority of my use of commas was its own stylistic decision.

The novel is quite conversational in style. Three different narrative voices to be precise. Each differentiated from the other. So a uniform style guide across the board is not going to work. They use pauses for dramatic effect, for emphasis. A comma is always going to work better for this than a semi-colon or colon, even if they're rattling off a list. (To my mind, a semi-colon is always suggestive of a magician about to reveal some great trick, which may not always be appropriate in a sentence, maybe it's less of an outstanding revelation and more a natural corollary). A comma can indicate where the emphasis of a sentence should fall, important if a sentence is building up to some climactic reveal or suggestion such as at the end of an argument, or outrageous statement. A comma can also lend temporality to certain verbs and actions, such as "re-emergence", "festering", or here in the case of "trailing", conveying the sense of a repeated happening, which over time has yielded a certain effect or understanding.

Been trailing here long enough now to put the names to the faces, the faces to the aspects of the mothers 

Which brings me to a reason to delete commas. Phrases like "of course", "you see", "only", "since", "well" and the like, usually sustain a comma. But when the speaker (in the cases of my three narrative voices, an internal voice) is in full-flow, is being declamatory, commas in these cases only slow the flow. When one of the voices uses the phrase "of course", she may not be supposing and weighing up the alternatives, she is using it for emphasis as if there are no other possibilities. Confident, assertive, a comma absolutely works against this. One of the characters has written her words in a diary, so she has already largely processed them between the event she is reporting and coming to set them down on paper. She is not ruminating, she is leaving herself a fully-realised story, with morals and cautions to avoid mistakes in the future. Another voice exists only online, where grammar is rarely strictly formal. The third voice, (non-human), is putting forth an argument in rhetorical fashion, as if we the human race were slow kids at school who just have to listen and take our medicine as she delivers it. Pace and tone fundamentally determine the need for pauses or run-on sentences. Sometimes the speaker offers a seeming space for the listener to consider what has just been said; other times no such opportunity is permitted, because to the speaker's mind it is self-evident. The tension for the reader is whether these narrators are trustworthy and their words reliable; that for all their assertive flow, are there perceptible cracks in their confidence which might undermine the veracity of what they say? Commas can't do all the work behind such tension, but they are indispensable to it. A comma can hint at insincerity as much as bluster.

Although we read silently, we still do hear it at some level inside our heads. I always have a draft explicitly where I read aloud to try and see how reading it might be for the reader. Sometimes you have to help the reader, to give them pauses to catch their breath, or cogitate on something you suspect is going to reverberate in their mind. Here the humble comma is most helpful in breaking up the run of a sentence and providing the reader a chance to get to the end of it. Such commas must be careful not to work against the logic used in the previous paragraphs, but they are still important for helping the reader along. I use the phrase "the everyday arpeggio of parenting", which because of its plosive sounds can leave the reader a little breathless, so I use a comma to let the reader catch their breath before completing the sentence "inevitably thrums and frets my stretched nerve ends".

So there you have it. No more than 15 notes on words, but page after page about commas needing to be instated or inserted ones needing to be removed. I really came to see my own novel in a whole new light, that of the microcosmic at the level of the sentence. No doubt in future I shall still write with an innate and organic sense of grammar, but in the revisions and edits, I shall have to think about every comma in this way once again.

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