Sunday, January 27, 2013

Luncheon at a Punctuation Party

Susan Vreeland's Luncheon of the Boating Party is a reimagining of the processes Renoir went through to create one of his most famous paintings. The work was a colossal endeavor: a huge canvas made with the help of a variety of friends/models. It was created along the Seine at the Masion Fournaise, not far from Paris.

In the book Vreeland has great fun imagining the decisions that went into the painting, the doubts, the false starts. I purchased the book on the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend with whom I'd seen the famous work.

However, I wasn't able to stay excited about the book. I made it throught the first chapter before running into nonstandard punctuation of a non-restrictive clause. A non-restrictive clause (which could also be thought of as "unnecesary," at least in terms of the grammar of the sentence) takes commas. The commas signal that the information is "extra" information rather than necessary information to identify the subject.

An easy way to understand the difference is this:

If I say

My brother, who lives in Switzerland, has five cats.

the implication would be that I have one brother and that he happens to live in Switzerland. In this case "who lives in Switzerland" is bonus information.

But if my brothers all live in different countries, the phrase "who lives in Switzerland" distinguishes John from all the others. In this case it's a restrictive clause, meaning a necessary part of the sentence that restricts the definition of John. Thus it doesn't take commas. It's not extra.

My brother who lives in Switzerland has five cats.
My brother who lives in Italy has five daughters.
My brother who lives in England is too poor to have anything.

Vreeland's confusing sentence near the beginning of Chapter 2 is "He used to be welcomed anytime, by Jeanne or her mother who stuffed his cheeks with sweets, but that was last winter."

Vreeland's unintended implication is that Jeanne has several mothers, but this one is responsible for stuffing [Auguste]'s cheeks with sweets.

In a similar example at the bottom of the page, Vreeland uses a comma before the first "interrupter," a phrase that interrupts the grammar of the sentence, but fails to use a comma after the phrase. She writes:

Once, just this once he'd....

instead of writing

Once, just this once, .....

It is quite common for writers to make the mistake of using only one comma where they needed two or where they didn't need any at all. To help myself remember this rule, I think: unnecessary (non-restrictive) phrases get commas. We could take those phrases out and still have a perfect luncheon at the punctuation party.

Good Thief Part 2

A few months later, with Amsterdam still on my mind, I decided to give Ewan's book another try; the narrator's voice was fetching, and the light-heartedness reminded me of similar mystery books I'd read. But the first two pages of the second chapter had another interesting array of issues.

1. use of 'alright'. Generally this word is considered nonstandard, although it's frequently found, especially in journalism. But if the author is in service to the readers, and the readers get caught up by nonstandard forms, it might be better to go ahead and write out the two words.

2. use of hyphens. The narrator defines one man as heavy-set and another as rail-thin and almost ill-looking. However, hyphens are used to join adjectives that modify nouns. Thus, standard usage would be:

The man was heavy set.
He was a heavy-set man.

3. use of an object pronoun instead of a possessive adjective before a gerund
The narrator said "there was more chance of me turning down..." when standard usage would be "there was more chance of my turning down..."

4. use of "less" with a noncountable noun

The narrator talks about "less people," but "fewer people" would be the standard form.

5. use of punctuation
The rule is to use a comma between independent clauses joined by coordinating conjunctions unless the clauses are quite short. (You would not have to look far to find this rule in any grammar book.) Yet the author writes:

"For one thing, it was already dark and there was a raw bite to the wind that was keeping people inside their homes and off the streets but, more to the point, it took me longer to pull my micro screwdriver and set of picks from my pocket than it did to snap back the lazy old cylinder lock on the door to the barge."

 An additional comma before "but" would accurately signal readers that an independent clause was to follow.

At this point I had to make a conscious decision to enjoy the book despite its nonstandard usages. I read it the way I read student work, which is to say I read for meaning rather than paying attention to details or reading carefully or trying to take in every word. The difference is that when it comes to student work, I go back and read a second time, pointing out errors and deducting points accordingly.