« The Fog Index | Home | Reliable Sources, Accessible Sources, Part I »

Punctuation, Titles, Grammar, and Style

Posted on Monday, January 30, 2017 at 10:20 PM

A review of some recent style and grammar guides for writers and editors.

By Peter P. Jacobi

June Casagrande offers you The Best Punctuation Book, Period (Ten Speed Press). In an introduction, she argues: "A lot of people assume that there's a single correct answer for every punctuation conundrum. Either a comma belongs in a certain spot or it doesn't. Either the possessive of James is formed by adding an apostrophe plus an s, or it's formed by adding the apostrophe alone.

"The good news here," Casagrande adds, "is also the bad news; often there's more than one right answer. Whether to use a certain punctuation mark can be a matter of choice -- the writer's way of emphasizing his meaning, creating rhythm, or making the words more pleasing to the eye. Other times these questions boil down to a matter of style," and so forth.

The author gives us close to 250 pages of lessons and examples that should clear up any questions or confusions you have about commas (40 pages), apostrophes (13), and periods (8). There's also a section titled "Punctuation A to Z" that deals with how word and phrases should be treated stylistically if you're writing a book or news or science or academia. There are distinct differences.

Now Write! Nonfiction

Sherry Ellis offers Now Write! Nonfiction (Tarcher/Penguin). Ellis is the editor, and as that, she asked 85 writers and teachers to contribute one exercise each, designed to sharpen a specific skill in writing or editing.

Here are a few of the titles to give you an idea of the scope attended to in this collection:

"Writing Your Way in the Back Door" by Christine Hemp; "What Am I Going to Say?" by Myra Sklarew; "Breaking from 'Fact' in Essay Writing" by Jenny Boully; "On Propriety, Or the Fear of Looking Foolish" by Paul Lisicky; "Seeing without Judging" by Joy Castro; "Author as Character in Narrative Nonfiction" by Tilar Mazzeo; "Specificity and Characters" by Hope Edelman; "Landscape and Memory" by Natalia Rachel Singer; "Legwork: Exploring Place" by Lynne Barrett; "The Artful 'I'; Exercises in Style and Voice" by Carl Klaus; "The Music of Sentences" by Rebecca McClanahan; "Outlining: The Writer's Road Map" by Gay Talese; "On Achieving Distance" by Ira Wood; "Don't Just Describe It ... Evoke It ... Make It Real!" by Bruce Dobler; "Make It Brief" by Neal Bowers; "Abracadabra! The Art Is in the Editing" by Robert Leleux; and "The Yellow Test" by Lee Gutkind.

I couldn't recognize all of the contributors' names, but rest assured: each one is identified, each has a multitude of worthy credits, and each has added a lesson worth applying as we continue to better ourselves as writers and editors of writers. Creativity is hard at work in the pages of this book.

Gwynne's Grammar

Teacher N.M. Gwynne has lent his name to the title of his book, Gwynne's Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English (Knopf).

In summary early on, he tells us, "Grammar is the science of using words rightly, leading to thinking rightly, leading to deciding rightly, without which -- as both common sense and experience show -- happiness is impossible. Therefore, happiness depends at least partly on good grammar."

Parts of speech, the basics of syntax, punctuation, the rules of usage, the principles of composition, matters of form, irregular verbs, and the formation of plurals receive in depth coverage. You'll also find a section, "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused," which got my attention. Here's an example from that lengthy list: the word "certainly." It gets these words of advice: "Used indiscriminately by some speakers, much as others use 'very,' to intensify any and every statement. A mannerism of this kind, bad in speech, is even worse in writing."

And here is another: "He is a man who ... " Says Gwynne: "A common type of redundant expression." He then quotes Strunk and White, their rule to "omit needless words." Gwynne follows with examples: "'He is a man who is very ambitious' should simply be 'He is very ambitious,' and 'Spain is a country which I have always wanted to visit' should be 'I have always wanted to visit Spain.'"

Lively little book.

The Sense of Style

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Viking) is the work of Steven Pinker, a professor in Harvard's department of psychology and also chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

Pinker's opening chapter is titled "Good Writing." He asks. "Where does it come from?", then answers: "I'd be the last to doubt that good writers are blessed with an innate dose of fluency with syntax and memory for words. But no one is born with skills in English composition per se. Those skills may not have come from stylebooks, but they must have come from somewhere.

"That somewhere," he continues, "is the writing of other writers. Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash. This is the elusive 'ear' of a skilled writer."

Pinker's "ear" is sharp as a tack. Reading him is not only a pleasure but an education. He does not avoid complicated issues such as the thorny masculine and feminine dilemma. For it, he uses a statement from President Obama that followed a Supreme Court decision to strike down a discriminatory law: "No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like."

In so doing, says Professor Pinker, the president "touched one of the hottest usage buttons of the past forty years: the use of the plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves with a grammatically singular antecedent like no American. Why didn't the president write because of what he looks like, or because of what he or she looks like?"

There is no one answer, but Pinker discusses the options for the six or so pages that follow, thereby giving you ample reasons for whatever solution you choose to use. He is thorough. In the 300-plus pages of The Sense of Style, I believe, you can come up with answers to just about anything that troubles or confuses you in the realms of style and grammar.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

Add your comment.

« The Fog Index | Top | Reliable Sources, Accessible Sources, Part I »