Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Cost of Careless Comma Use

I noticed the other day that the shortlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction had been announced. Looking at the books that had been selected, I saw that two of them featured Romania in their plots. I'm interested in that part of the world, and so I decided to get the Kindle excerpts of the two books from Amazon, to see if I wanted to buy one - or both.

Curiously, when I opened the pair of them, I found their covers were surprisingly similar. Both showed windows hung with delicate curtains, which were, in each case, parted slightly, to reveal a glimpse of the scene beyond - a scene, in both instances, that was definitely urban and quite possibly European:

Sadly, there the resemblance ended.

But why do I say 'sadly'? Surely, one would not want the two books to be too much the same.

True. The problem here, however, is that one book is readable and the other, thanks to poor editing, is rather maddening. One is written by a master of prose; the other is written by someone who could be a very good writer, if only an editor had persuaded her to use a few more commas and concentrate on the construction of her sentences.

Take this first paragraph from Georgina Harding as an example:

"Though he has seen photographs of cities he has never been in one before. In the dusk as the train came in it looked monochrome as the photos: black smears of road, grey walls, grey buildings angled across the sides of hills. The buildings appeared singly at first then massed, most of them solid but some hollow so that he could see through them to the sky as it darkened. Between the buildings there were the bare outlines of trees - still there were trees - but the forest was gone. He had been sitting with his back to the engine so he had had a sense of the landscape receding rather than of the city approaching. He had seen the land become forest, and then the forest became city, and then he closed his eyes. That way he could keep the land with him for longer. He held the memory of that land in his mind and he pictured himself disappearing into it, vertically, not moving his limbs but only standing like a post, sinking down into some long brown fold between the tracks and the wide horizon."

Personally, I would like a comma between "cities" and "he has never" in the first sentence, but that is a matter of taste. I also think there's some ambiguity about whether he's never been in a city or never been in a photograph of a city, but I don't think it really leaps out at you in the way the ambiguity in the next sentence does. In that sentence, the train is the only subject mentioned, so presumably it looked monochrome, (and where is the 'as' before 'monochrome' by the way) - or is it the place that looks monochrome, in which case why not write, 'In the dusk, as the train came in, the place looked as monochrome as the photos [had/he'd seen]'? That way the reader's attention doesn't get hijacked, racing off on wild goose chases, wondering how trains can have black smears of road and grey walls and grey buildings, (and perhaps I'm just dense but I find 'angled across the sides of hills' a pretty hard concept to grasp, even though I expect the writer thought it was rather a wonderful little turn of phrase). 

I will leave the next sentence, although I do actually find it a bit inelegant, but I can't fuss over everything ,(well, I can, but I will try to do it privately and only highlight the most glaring distractions in the prose). In the sentence after that, beginning, 'Between the buildings ...', am I the only reader to be brought up short by 'still there were trees'? Does that mean 'still, at least there were trees' or does it mean, 'there were still trees' or possibly, in a glimpse of the anonymous character's internal monologue, 'so there were still trees'?

Again I'll - reluctantly - skip a sentence in order to look at the one after it that starts, 'He had seen ...' What is going on with the tenses there? Why do we set out with what I think may be a pluperfect but then switch to what I regard as the historic past, (although that may be a term used only in French)? Why doesn't the sentence read, 'He saw the land become forest, and then the forest became city, and then he closed his eyes'? I can't concentrate on the matter in hand, because I don't understand this use of grammar. I'm vexed already. If this were a paper book, I'd hurl it across the room.

So, thanks to a few missing commas, (plus a lack of careful thought about grammar), Georgina Harding has missed out on my money. It's a pity because I think she might have a good story to tell; the trouble is I know I'll never finish reading it, because I will be chafing too much at the odd tenses and punctuation. 

Cynthia Ozick, meanwhile, doesn't put a foot wrong - or misplace a comma. Her prose is flawless. It carries the reader along with skill and grace:

There's been talk, since Ozick's nomination, about the fact that she's in her 80s - and, in reply, some people have demanded to know why her age is being raised as a factor of any relevance. At first I was among those who wondered why age was being mentioned; now though I'm wondering if, in fact, it is an important element of her success. It may be precisely Ozick's age that explains her wonderful understanding of language. Is it possible that her command of punctuation and grammar is a result of her having been educated at a time when such things were still considered important?  Who knows. All I can say is that it's thanks to her commas that Ozick is the one who will get my cash.


  1. Two of the books shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction feature Romania in their plots? Good heavens, I want to buy them both. I'm guessing the author might explain away all the infelicitous grammar usages with some guff about a stream of consciousness. I also should be hot on these points, but I fear that might be chaffing more at "that type of tree doesn't grow in the part Romania you're describing!", or summat.

    1. I don't think you realise that you are a trend setter, Gadjo - Romania is the place to be (apart from Canberra, of course)

  2. I would have inserted a couple of commas in the sentence that began with "His landlady..." in the Ozick extract, but otherwise I agree.

    As for Georgina Harding, if the author photo is anything to go by she's no spring chicken either, so I would have expected a better grasp of grammar. Why did Bloomsbury allow such leaden prose to be published? After the success of Harry Potter, they should be able to afford some decent editors.

    1. To be really honest, Steerforth (as opposed to creating an extreme black and white picture for the sake of argument), I might have a dash rather than a comma before 'apparently not much', I might put commas round that clause I think you're thinking of in the 'His landlady' sentence, although it might make it hiccup a bit - but those are stylistic changes rather than things that are necessary in order to avoid any kind of ambiguity or actual confusion, whereas that sentence with the trees interpolation in the Harding is very hard to read without getting stuck. I must look at the Harding pic - I'm no spring chicken myself (although not yet in my eighties) so I probably will think she looks childlike. Ozick, in the picture I saw, didn't look too aged herself - but then again, the photograph may not have been recent.

  3. Yes, it is stylistic. I blame my wife. She's a freelance editor who is obsessed with commas and hyphens (if she had her way, we'd probably go back to writing 'to-day').

    Re: Harding - an increasing number of people are looking childlike to me, including the Prime Minister. It's rather disconcerting.

    1. As you can probably guess, I share your wife's profession. On age, I'm at the stage of being shocked by how young doctors are. Even if I hadn't got to that point though, I think your PM would look young. He has an oddly ill-defined face, a bit like a baby's.