Mind your language

This blog is a cheat. It has no originality. Its words have all been culled from other people. From time to time, I come across interesting pieces on the use of the English language and I put them aside for a rainy day. The sun is now shining, but the rainy day has arrived.  

Here, for example, is Kathryn Schulz’s take on the five best literary uses of punctuation:¹

1.   The parentheses in Nabokov’s Lolita
My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three… The sentence goes on, for 84 more words, 11 commas, one colon, one semicolon, and another set of parentheses. But the reader, like the unlucky mother, stops dead. Like the lightning inside it, this parenthetical aside is swift, staggering, and brilliant.

2.   The em dash in George Eliot’s Middlemarch
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea — but why always Dorothea? Here we are at the beginning of Chapter 29, bopping along pleasantly when, out of nowhere, Eliot veers hard and throws us out of the story. What makes this em dash stand out is that it does formally what the rest of the book does thematically. Why always Dorothea? Why always one’s self? Enough of that, says Eliot, and hustles us off to Casaubon’s corner.

3.   The ellipses in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go, and make our visit.
Everything in ‘Prufrock’ is elliptical: those meandering streets, the foglike cat, the perfume-inspired digressions. The most yawning chasm in the poem is the first. What overwhelming question, Eliot? The options, as I see it, are “What is the meaning of life?” and “Hey, so, would you maybe want to have dinner with me sometime?” Existential exposure, romantic embarrassment. Poor Prufrock, no wonder he trails off into that visual stutter.

4.   The colon in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
Marley was dead: to begin with. That is the opening line of A Christmas Carol, although it is less like an opening than like a train carriage immediately running into another train carriage. It would be unremarkable if it read, “Marley was dead, to begin with” or if it “To begin with: Marley was dead.” But as written, this sentence is insane, or anyway destined to foment insanity in the grammatically prissy. It has death, a dangling participle and a wonderfully garrulous narrator with some kind of unmentionable Victorian-era disease: wandering colon. It is great.

5.   The period at the end of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table
It is that which at this instant, issuing out of a labyrinthine tangle of yeses and nos, makes my hand run along a certain path on the paper, mark it with these volutes that are signs: a double snap, up and down, between 2 levels of energy, guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one. Levi’s strange, lovely book includes everything from short stories to accounts of his imprisonment in Auschwitz to a subtle investigation of chemistry – both as a scientific discipline (he was trained as a chemist) and as the invisible infrastructure of the world. Each of its 21 chapters is named for an element; the last one is ‘Carbon’, the stuff of life, the stuff of us. In it, Levi traces the trajectory of a single carbon atom: blown on the wind, dissolved in the sea, migrating into a leaf, into one eye of a many-eyed insect, into a glass of a milk, into the human body, into the brain, guiding Levi to place at the end of the sentence at the end of the chapter at the end of his book its final, atom-like dot.

And this is what Mark Forsyth² has to say on the order of adjectives:

Given that almost everything else in the English language is slapdash, happy-go-lucky, care-may-the-Devil, word order is surprisingly strict. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote his first story aged seven. It was about a ‘green great dragon’. He showed it to his mother who told him that you absolutely couldn’t have a green great dragon, and that it had to be a great green one instead. Tolkien was so disheartened that he never wrote another story for years.

The reason for Tolkien’s mistake, since you ask, is that adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can’t exist.

There are other rules that everybody obeys without noticing. Have you ever heard that patter-pitter of tiny feet? Or the dong-ding of a bell? Or hop-hip music? That’s because, when you repeat a word with a different vowel, the order is always I A O. Bish bash bosh. So politicians may flip-flop, but they can never flop-flip. It’s tit-for-tat, never tat-for-tit. This is called ablaut reduplication, and if you do things any other way, they sound very, very odd indeed.

Finally, for now, there is the vexed question of punctuation. This could easily fill a blog in its own right and maybe one day it will. Punctuation insists on remaining idiosyncratic. There may be basic rules, but the only two that matter are to make the meaning clear and not to irritate. No punctuation mark can irritate more than the humble comma. Here is an irked James Thurber on its use (again borrowed from Kathryn Schulz):

Now and then, the weedy growth of that punctuation mark, spreading through the magazine like dandelions, was more than I could bear with Christian fortitude. I once sent Ross (editor of The New Yorker) a few typed lines of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems, repunctuated after his exasperating fashion:

She lived, alone, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be,
But, she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference, to me.

1   Kathryn Schulz is a journalist and author, and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing

2   Mark Forsyth has written several books on the meaning and etymology of English words, including The Etymologicon