Friday, 10 October 2008

Nervous systematics

In case anyone stops sending me copy-editing work because of what I wrote somewhere not far below (‘there are more interesting things than correctness’), I should add that I do get bothered by punctuation and grammar that’s plain wrong, silly or misleading. I can argue all day about commas. (I’m currently having a rather boring argument with an author who wants to use both en-rules and em-rules for dashes; he has his reasons, but the result on the page will look to the innocent reader like a mistake.)

A tool for clarity and precision, good punctuation is essentially good manners; it’s about being courteous to readers, saving them from confusion and having to read your sentences again to work out what you’re trying to say. But ‘good’ doesn’t always mean it has to obey the school rules. The zero-tolerance but muddled approach of Lynne Truss is no help at all. (For a sensible take on Truss – ‘Why should a person who is not just vague about the rules but disinclined to follow them bother to produce a guide to punctuation?’ – see Louis Menand in The New Yorker.) For good read appropriate. There are writers who use no quote marks for speech, who sometimes don’t bother with punctuation at all, who ignore the usage guides, and if they’re clever enough – a big if, but it happens – that’s fine.

Earlier this week Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947–80 fell into my lap, and I read this in his introduction: ‘Syntax punctuation Capitalization remain idiosyncratic, retaining the variable measure of nervous systematics.’

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