Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Grammar, usage, proofreading, and two books - Cecelia Watson's Semicolon and Cathleen Schine's The Grammarians*

As we at Boswell pile up email newsletters and blog posts and press releases and signs, I have learned that not everybody agrees on common usage and grammar. Style guides offer conflicting advice and as we've had various people pass through the department writing marking material, we've see variations in the way we did things. So we came up with one rule, which was to at least be consistent within one newsletter, blog, or press release. If we decided, as one of our marketing folks decreed, to stop putting an apostrophe before the s when referring to a decade (1920s, not 1920's), we'd have to make sure that every time we cut and pasted some publisher copy (we're not journalists, we cut and paste a lot of marketing copy), we'd remember to fix this, especially if it’s done both ways in one story.

We have a weird tic where for a dash, we use a "space, hyphen, space." I'm not sure where this came from, as I was definitely a double hyphen person, but one of our sources was doing this, and just decided to standardize, with one exception - we do use an em dash with no spaces to separate event headers from the copy in our print calendars. Once again, that was the doing of another long-gone bookseller.

That said, you have to give a bit. Chris is adamant about making sure that two clauses that could stand as sentences be connected by a comma before the conjunction – I have to say that we’ve never had another bookseller that consistently corrected that. Sometimes I have to put my foot down. Another bookseller insisted that when separating independent clauses by a semicolon, you should capitalize the first word in the second clause. “Not on my watch,” I cried! And while we’re using quotes, I have this other pet peeve about overusing quotation marks in non-quotation situations. I find them very unhelpful and only leave them in if you can’t understand the sentence without them.

I also want to say one more thing about the dash, or to be specific, the em dash. In just the last decade since I've been writing and pasting and proofreading, it feels like its use as exploded, and this sometimes works me up into a state. And that's why I was so excited to read Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark. Cecelia Watson chronicles the punctuation’s origin, its explosion in use and subsequent falling out of favor, and its possible comeback. What I liked about the book was more of this idea that grammar was once an art and then was reverse engineered to become a science during the mania of applying the scientific method to everything. Though I still wince when I see a sign in a store that uses an apostrophe and s for a plural, I will no longer go up to the customer service desk and demand a correction. I don’t think I’ve actually done this, but I’ve certainly thought about this.

Watson argues for the mark’s comeback, quoting artists of the form such as Herman Melville, Raymond Chandler, and Rebecca Solnit, arguing how, to quote myself, “artistic license can lead to a more joyfully nuanced reading life.” The book made quite a splash over the summer, resonating with the critics, reviewers, and segment producers who are probably often immersed in the kind of grammar debates that we go through. And can I mention that while I don’t subscribe to Grammarly (despite it interrupting every other video I watch), I have noted that Microsoft’s grammar rules don’t match mine. I’m sorry, but that proper name ending in s really should have an apostrophe s when it is a possessive.

One way Cecelia Watson laid things out was by looking at language criticism as either descriptive or prescriptive. That reminded me of my old dictionary talk I used to give, where I’d sort out the major dictionaries from prescriptive (American Heritage) to descriptive (Websters New World), with Merriam Webster somewhere in between. But the truth is that until the early 1960s, Merriam Webster was a prescriptive dictionary, and its change in attitudes sent shockwaves through the language community.

Can that be the basis of a novel? Yes, it can! Cathleen Schine’s latest, just out this week, is The Grammarians, the story of two sisters, Daphne and Laurel Wolfe, sisters who grow up with a great love of language. Like so many other novels I read (and Schine’s own Three Weissmanns of Westport), are the sisters feuding? Yes, eventually. I’m not sure why everyone doesn’t write novels with identical twins so that at one point the sisters can do a switcheroo. In The Grammarians, there is an excellent switcheroo.

Some language books can be rewarding but feel a bit like a class assignment. While I did recently read The Milkman, I’m not sure I can ever handle Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, for example. Over 1000 pages and pretty much one sentence? Our In-Store Lit Group will vote me out of office. But if it wins the Man Booker, I make no promises to the group. But The Grammarians language writing is something else entirely - exuberant, effervescent – I felt a little tipsy afterwards.

Daphne and Laurel grow up together, but then they grow apart, and it comes to a head over their father’s prized possession, a copy of the Webster’s International Dictionary. By adulthood, Daphne and Laurel Wolfe have become two versions of the dictionary itself, one the descriptive poet and the other the prescriptive columnist. Yes, they are the personification of diverging dictionary philosophies. But since this is a comedy, you can expect that things will eventually work out, with some unexpected twists along the way.

Like another Schine novel I enjoyed, Fin and Lady, the story is steeped in New York nostalgia. But more than her previous books, The Grammarians really called to mind Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time, in its almost fairy-tale telling. In fact, it is the most Colwiny-est novel I have read in a long time, and if that is not a compliment, I don’t know what is.

Oh, and I'm sure there are typos in this post, but it's possible that they are stylistic errors I made on purpose. 

*We like the Oxford comma; not everyone and every style guide does.

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