I read a very interesting article in this week’s New Yorker written by Mary Norris, who’s worked on the copy editing end of that magazine for a long time. I find pieces like this fascinating (the New York Times also runs a regular column where they discuss stylistic choices made in the newspaper) because they give us an insider’s view into how decisions about grammar and style are made in popular venues. Most importantly, in my opinion, they give us further evidence that many of the “rules” we think govern our language (especially when it comes to punctuation) are not nearly as black-and-white or easily discernible as we might assume. (Which should come as a huge relief to those of us who worry about our own abilities when we can’t easily discern the rules on our own.)
Some will read Norris’ piece and do lots of eye-rolling (if they even make it through the whole thing) at her proclivity to look for (and find) grammatical “errors” or typos while reading–even though such a talent certainly helps in her chosen career. Their eyes will likely roll even more near the end of the piece when she engages in some deep analysis of some comma choices made by the author James Salter. But I find the latter, especially, to be a very interesting example of the level of thought that can go into a single decision about a comma, and the way that meaning can be communicated (albeit subtly) through these choices. Here’s a brief excerpt of her wondering about the use of a coordinating comma with two adjectives:
Consider the context: “Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach.” Was the author trying to emphasize the thinness of the fabric in order to linger over the “faint outline” of her stomach? If so, I thought he was misguided, not to say lecherous. (Her name is Eve: she’s obviously a temptress.)
(It’s worth noting that she actually contacts Salter and he offers some thoughtful and instructive explanations for his choices.)
Norris ends the article with a thoughtful metaphor that embraces some of the same attitudes I try to communicate and share in this class. She compares understanding the nuts-and-bolts of the English language (i.e., grammar or syntax) to understanding how a car functions, and compares her experience taking an adult-ed night class on car repair to learning about the mechanics of our language. She recognizes that we don’t need to completely understand the mechanical workings of the combustion engine to use a car and make it do what we want and suggests that the same is true of language. She ends her piece this way:
Grammar also has some intimidating terms, and grammarians throw them around constantly, but you don’t need to know them in order to use the language. E. B. White once said that before working on “The Elements of Style” he was the kind of writer who did not have “any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.” You notice a gasket only when someone blows it. To understand how the language works, though—to master the mechanics of it—you have to roll up your sleeves and join the ink-stained wretches as we name the parts. But if that doesn’t work for you, just put the key in the ignition and turn it.
I hope we’ll help students have the confidence to just “turn the key” when they want to communicate with language. But I also hope that we’ll help them understand a few things about the mechanics of the language so that, when the language stops working for them (as it inevitably does for all of us), they can do some troubleshooting and get things back on track.