Archives For Manuscripts

Peculiarities of Punctuation

September 17, 2019 — 15 Comments

I question how we can ever secure world peace, when we can’t even agree on how to punctuate. And this is not only an international controversy—although it certainly possesses intercontinental ramifications.

Writers who have submitted their work to editors know exactly what I’m talking about. The world abounds with critics who are positive they know how to “fix” your manuscript, so you can more effectively communicate what you are trying to say.

A fine example of this is found in the case of Samuel Clemons. As I described several years ago, Mark Twain considered editors to be a plague. He sums up his irritation in a letter to a friend.

I give it up. These printers pay no attention to my punctuation. Nine-tenths of the labor & vexation put upon me by [them] consists in annihilating their ignorant & purposeless punctuation & restoring my own. This latest batch [also has] my punctuation ignored & their insanities substituted for it.

C.S. Lewis experienced similar challenges in working with his editors. In 1959, Lewis was responding to edits made by his longtime editor, Jocelyn Gibb, on the manuscript of The Four Loves.

I enclose my emendations, concessions, and resistances. . . . as regards my emendations, will you be so kind as to type them and send them to Harcourt Brace for the American edition. Otherwise we shall create a ‘textual problem.’

After arguing for several points of substance, Lewis offers a preemptive surrender on the field of punctuation. “Do anything you like (in reason) to the punctuation.” Lewis’ qualified capitulation was in response to this editorial comment from Gibb:

Do you really favour a comma before an “and” which seems to run all through? If so, why not: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

It’s curious Lewis’ editor would question his inclusion of commas in this manner, since it is not uncommon in British literature. In fact, punctuation in this context is often called an “Oxford comma.” You can read a decent discussion of the subject here. And, lest you deem it an inconsequential matter, check out this interesting article describing how it became “the crux of a $10 million class-action lawsuit . . .” The author of the article notes:

Many style guides, including the Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association (APA), and American Medical Association (AMA), recommend the use of the Oxford comma to prevent ambiguity.

Yet others, including the AP style guide, Canadian Press (CP) style guide, and (shockingly) the University of Oxford style guide itself, use the Oxford comma only when a sentence could be misinterpreted by the reader without it.

Here’s the problem, though, for those who do not consistently use the Oxford comma: when writing a sentence, you don’t always realize that what you’re writing could be misinterpreted.

A Nineteenth Century Tribute to Punctuation

Punctuation can provide insights into a writer’s personality, as I have discussed here. Recently I encountered this personally published poem from 1861. You can download Ephemeral Effusions, the quaint volume in which it appears, at no cost via Internet Archive.

Easy Rules for Punctuation

Written for the amusement
of a valued Friend,
who was a great stickler
for correct punctuation.

Whene’er you pause, to dip the pen,
A comma you must place;
If at a loss to find a word,
A semicolon trace.

Should thoughts flow slowly, fill the gap
With colon, or with rest;
And when the sentence is complete,
A period answers best.

A bright idea always claims
A note of admiration;
And, if you doubt, a crooked mark
Implies interrogation.

Inverted commas indicate,
Your wits are at an end;
And, your ideas failing,
You borrow from a friend.

Parenthesis (example take),
I won’t say much about;
It guards a sentence, which sometimes
Had better be left out.

The little star of secrecy,
Tho’ last, not least in fame,
Is aide-de-camp to mystery,
And asterisk its name.

These rules are all so clear,
they need no explanation;
And constitute the art
of modern punctuation.

Beavers Beware

January 2, 2017 — 9 Comments

russian-typoA mere 375,000 rubles buys a fair amount of publicity in Russia; just be sure to proofread the product.

This Christmas season one Russian charity hoped to encourage readers to live good lives, but instead they published a brochure that encouraged beaver genocide.

Beavers are particularly vulnerable rodents. They are quite gentle, and even Talking Beavers are poorly equipped to defend themselves.

The lovely scene on the leaflet featured an innocent girl gazing into a snow globe. Emblazoned above it was supposed to read “Do Good.” Instead, the Russian words spelled out “Exterminate Beavers!”

It just bears out the maxim, “proofread before you publish.” In this case, one could easily add: “if the work is translated, make sure the proofreader understands both languages.”

Some errors are especially heinous.

C.S. Lewis recognized the importance of proofreading.

He was sometimes the victim of inadequate editorial review. So it comes as no surprise that he preferred to see galleys (the uncorrected typeset proofs) of his work before actual publication.

The following reference from a letter in which Lewis attributes the need for such as due to his own poor penmanship, rather than the carelessness of others. This is typical of his generosity, since part of the duties of editors (and pharmacists, for that matter) is to be able to decipher the scribblings of authors (and physicians). Mark Twain did not share Lewis’ grace in this matter.

When his friend Dorothy Sayers died in 1958, Lewis was unable to attend the funeral in London. He was, however, honored to write a panegyric for the service, which was read by one of the bishops in attendance. Following the event, Sayer’s son, Anthony Fleming thanked Lewis and asked if he might include the eulogy in possible collection.

Dear Mr. Fleming

Thank you for your most kind letter. I am relieved to find that the little speech has pleased those whose approval at such a time matters most—it is so easy to go wrong in a thing of that kind and so to give offence.

I am perfectly willing that it should be printed, but please ask whoever sees to it to be sure and let me see a proof. Even if printers made no mistakes, my villainous writing nearly always leads to some.

Lewis, of course, was referring to a literal manuscript, a document written by hand. One assumes that the Russian publisher was given a typescript, so they could not use “villainous writing” as an excuse for their error.

Still, I suspect they were given the text in one language, English perhaps, and asked to translate it for publication. In that case, who actually is responsible for the mistake?

I choose not to worry about attributing liability in this matter. I’m content to use this winter mistake to remind me of the importance of proofreading.

Oh, and on behalf of all of the beavers in Russia, I am relieved to know they will not be distributing these murderous words.