Lovingly, he held

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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.

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9 Comments

  1. I don’t envy you your former job as a vicious grammar exam writer. 😉

    Juliet Nubel’s first sentence is definitely a reader magnet, but the title with the missing comma will rankle me every time I see it. That’s just wrong unless there’s a reason for it to be missing. The only justification I can think of is that it represents the murderer’s disturbed mental commentary, wherein he narrates his actions in a continuous flow of words sans punctuation and refers to himself in third person. Carried out consistently, that could be an interesting device.

    As someone who reads and writes in the US, and doesn’t shy away from beginning the occasional sentence (complete or incomplete) with “and” or “but”, I was surprised to learn a comma following “and” or “but” at the beginning of a sentence is “standardised to US usage.” I can’t recall ever having seen it except, possibly, in dialogue spoken by characters who are trying to make a point and are younger than 25. Even then, in my experience, “Plus, [make point here]” would be more common. What style authority are you referencing?

    • I’m quite relaxed about commas on the whole – I think there’s a lot of leeway depending on the author’s style. So no comma after ‘lovingly’ doesn’t bother me, especially as it’s a title. But the comma after an initial ‘and’ is strange. I reference no style authority – it’s just something I’ve noticed.

      • I don’t doubt you, Curtis, but I think you can safely assume It isn’t standardized US, and leave any errant comma after “and” or “but” at the beginning of a sentence out. Please. 😊

  2. Interesting. I am an American and have read a lot of things, but I don’t recall seeing the commas illustrated by
            «But, I really can’t see it.  And, it bothers me.»
    anywhere before just now.  And I don’t like them at all.  They bungle the good reasons for sometimes starting a new sentence with “And” or “But” rather than continuing an old one with “, and” or “, but” (as grammar prigs would prefer).

      • I’d be very surprised if there is an authoritative source, as it seems a weird thing to do. But I had a US editor go over One Green Bottle and she inserted commas into the following sentences:
        But, in 2005 a decree came out saying you had to be qualified.
        And, you weren’t a detective anyway.
        But, her accuser appeared highly amused.
        And so on. She was adding them throughout till I told her not to bother as I wasn’t going to keep them. I don’t know whether she was referencing a style manual herself, but I presumed she wasn’t making it up out of nowhere.
        In a story I’ve just been proofreading, I came across:
        But, I’m not coming back.
        And, a few hammers.
        I’m heartened to see such instances are so rare you’ve never spotted any yourself. Perhaps it’s just a mutant form that will eventually die out altogether.

        • Haha! It seems your grammar instincts are well tuned. In the first sentence, I believe the editor was on the right track, but derailed when she didn’t follow through to set off the prepositional phrase, “in 2005” with a second comma. But the rest of your examples smack of youthful ignorance. lol

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