One of my duties used to consist in making up vicious grammar exams. Students would have to translate a sentence like, ‘The prize-winning, short-tempered, recently divorced municipal employee, who was given a standing ovation at the well-attended ceremony, couldn’t have been the one who was made fun of at last week’s meeting, because if he had been, we wouldn’t have been expected to show him so much gratitude.’ Sometimes, to be kind, we looked for sentences that sounded like real English, so we read books in search of a juicy nominalisation or a big, fat adjectival phrase. That was difficult though – after a couple of paragraphs, I’d start getting into the story, completely forgetting I was supposed to be in vicious examiner mode.
So it is with proofreading. I’ve just had the honour of checking some of the stories to appear in Dan Alatorre’s forthcoming anthology, The Box Under The Bed, and I had to read them three times: once for the story itself, then to appreciate the writing, and only then could I focus on fiddly things like extra spaces and commas.
The punctuation, I’m told, will be standardised to US usage, which is fine by me. Except for one thing – the habit of putting a comma after ‘and’ or ‘but’ at the beginning of a sentence. Perhaps there’s a logic to it. But, I really can’t see it. And, it bothers me.
Still, not to worry. When you read the stories, you won’t be looking for wayward commas or fiendish relative clauses, but enjoying them for what they are: good, spooky and entertaining. I particularly liked Juliet Nubel’s, called Lovingly He Held Her Head Underwater. Now you might argue that we should have a comma after ‘lovingly’, but it won’t bother you unduly, because the story then begins: His large, work-roughened hands shook hard, however, as he pushed down on her grey-tinged hair until the bubbles from her nose and mouth finally stopped rising. I think you’ll agree that not even the most malicious examiner could fail to get drawn in by such an opening.