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Category Archives: grammar

Flaying Sentences

Over at The Millions, Garth Risk Hallberg has diagrammed a sentence of Barack Obama's, building on the central insight Zadie Smith laid out in her recent essay:

This may be the essential Obama gift: making complexity and caution sound bold and active, even masculine… or rather, it may be one facet of a larger gift: what Zadie Smith calls "having more than one voice in your ear." Notice the canny way that the sentence above turns on the fulcrum of what may be Obama's favorite word: "but." What appears to be a hard line – "My view is… that nobody is above the law" – turns out to have been a qualifier for a vaguer but more inspiring motto: "I am more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back." The most controversial part of the sentence – "people should be prosecuted" – gets tucked away, almost parenthetically, in the middle.

This reminded me that I wanted to blog about William H. Gass's excellent essay in the most recent Review of Contemporary Fiction. Beyond making me wonder why Harper's continues wasting him on author biographies, Gass's essay offered many intriguing alternatives to the familiar sentence diagram for visualizing a sentence.

He had never dreamed of anything
                                 so fringed     and scalloped,
                                 so buttoned    and corded,
         drawn everywhere        so tight       and curled
               everywhere        so thick.

This is actually one of the tamer examples from the essay.

Of late Gass has showed greater and greater interest in flaying the sentence on the page, so as to better understand how the sounds and meanings come together to work as we read. It makes one hopefull that he will one day publish a book-length exploration of the topic.

Speech in Bernhard

The Chagall Position has an interesting post on the use of speech-attribution tags in Bernhard:

With a scanner and the right software program, of course, it should be possible to arrive at the exact number of overall tags in the entire Bernhard corpus, and thus also to calculate the precise numerical average of tags per page (tpp) for the entire Bernhard corpus.  One might arrive at a figure such as 4.85tpp, for instance, rounded up from, say, 4.8489tpp. . . .

In more conventional fiction such tags exist only to be elided.  Their traditional function is to anchor the enunciation firmly in the narrator or character, to ensure the seamless procession of the “vivid, continuous dream,” the flow of vicarious experience and psychological identification.  They are lowly markers which do not enjoy the status of the other elements on the page.  When reading to oneself, they’re to be almost skipped over, registered by the eyes but not necessarily by the mental tongue.  Read aloud, the voice drops and gives their syllables a matter-of-fact little shove out into the cold, as if they were asides.  Less than asides: stage directions.  They are like the inert substrate in pills, the delivery system but not the stuff that is supposed to kill your pain or make you sleep.

But what happens when they metastasize?  When they proliferate and threaten to disrupt what they were meant to enable?

In Bernhard, the tags become pronounced, in both senses of the word. . . .

This brings to mind the recently translated novel Tranquility, by Attila Bartis. Although the vast majority of the book uses speech tags in the conventional way, certain sections (usually about one page in length) make pointed use of he said, she said, and I thought, in a somewhat similar way to what’s described above.

I’m particularly thinking of a certain legnthy paragraph in which Bartis concludes every sentence with ", he said" or ", she said." This scene comes right after a passionate sex scene, and the prominent use of speech tags, along with the removal of quotation marks, gives the dialogue an extraordinarily intimate feel. Rather than make the text choppy, it provides for a certain flow and rhythm (which must have been difficult to translate correctly). In the end, the feel is more akin to two consciousnesses seamlessly and directly exchanging thoughts than two people lying in bed talking.

The First English Dictionary

The current New York Review has an interesting essay (subs. only) about English-speakers’ ongoing efforts to corral their language into a dictionary, and how this job is made more difficult by "more than a billion English-speakers, many engaged in a ceaseless global conversation."

Among many types of wordbooks–"dictionaries of plants and flavors, politics and numismatics, zoology and psychopathology; wordbooks for consultation, exam study, and game playing; collections of euphemisms, profanity, slang, and cant; a dictionary of terrorism and a dictionary of drinking water"–the essay discusses what is believed to be the first English dictionary, 2,500 entries long and published in 1604:

The birth of the genre in English can be dated exactly. It came in the
age of Shakespeare, in 1604, when Robert Cawdrey, a schoolmaster and
defrocked priest, published a short book with a long title that began A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English wordes….
Cawdrey’s dictionary (a word he apparently didn’t know) runs to 2,500
words. His definitions are terse, and they don’t drip with confidence
or erudition. . . .

If he doesn’t know something, he has nowhere to look it up. He does
have the honor of inventing the perfectly useless circular definition:

gentile, a heathen.

heathen, see Gentile.

An edition of this dictionary was published by Oxford University Press in 2007.

The essay makes the interesting point that Cawdrey’s dictionary essentially introduced the idea of alphabetization as a way for ordering information, and now, 400 years hence, computerization, especially computer search, is beginning to erode alphabetization as the de facto primary means of organizing information.

Pro Or Con Quotation Marks

The Wall Street Journal has an unfortunately dumb editorial by Lionel Shriver attacking authors who opt not to use quotation marks in their fiction. Shriver takes what might be an interesting topic for discussion–what the inclusion or disinclusion of quotations marks from speech does to a novel’s aesthetics–and oddly shoehorns it into a flat, quasi-populist condemnation of authors who push away readers with "difficult" quotationless fiction:

Literature is not very popular these days, to put it mildly.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly half of
Americans do not read books at all, and those who do average a mere six
a year. You’d think literary writers would be bending over backwards to
ingratiate themselves to readers — to make their work maximally
accessible, straightforward and inviting. But no.

Perhaps no single emblem better epitomizes the perversity of my
colleagues than the lowly quotation mark. Some rogue must have issued a
memo, "Psst! Cool writers don’t use quotes in dialogue anymore" . . .

Why not toss in the serialists for using all those ugly sounds and those abstract expressionists for, you know, not painting pretty pictures of things?

Empty as Shriver’s "art for the people" line of argument is (you can write a perfectly vapid, easy read without quotation marks; for instance, just use em dashes to set off quotes, or just make it plainly obvious when a character is speaking with those rarely used words he/she said) Shriver puts herself on even shakier ground when she attempts to critique the aesthetics of quotation marks:

The appearance of authorial self-involvement in much modern literary
fiction puts off what might otherwise comprise a larger audience. By
stifling the action of speech, by burying characters’ verbal conflicts
within a blurred, all-encompassing über-voice, the author does not seem
to believe in action — and many readers are already frustrated with
literary fiction’s paucity of plot. When dialogue makes no sound, the
only character who really gets to talk is the writer.

There are two points here: no action and no sound. The first one is quite simple to deal with. Anyone who has read many of the authors Shriver mentions as going quoteless (Coetzee, Vollmann, Saramago, Diaz) knows that their books are plenty plotty. (In fact, Pulitzer-winner and bestseller Diaz would even rebut Shriver’s point about pushing away readers.) Or we could reverse this and note that famously plotless writers such as Proust and Sebald managed to make their stories stand still with plenty of quotes.

The second point is almost as easy to rebut as the first. Why would dialogue make "no sound" simply because it wasn’t encased in quotation marks? Speech is obviously about the way the words are put together, not about the fact that they’re put between a couple pairs of dumpy lines. This is, in fact, why quotationless quotes can work in good fiction–because skilled authors can establish voice without any quotations marks at all, and they can make multiple voices distinct enough that readers can discern who is speaking.

How Effective Writers Use Colons and Commas

Sameer Rahim has some interesting thoughts on colons:

I was taught that a colon indicates that what follows it contains
information that fulfils or explains the preceding clause. In literary
usage, it is often used to indicate momentum, as one part of the
sentence vaults to the next half. In Martin Amis’s Money, the
fast-living narrator, who moves through New York and London, only uses
colons, never semi-colons. That is until the final sentence of the
book, when he has grown more reflective and mature. (This being Amis,
the trick is highlighted for us about 100 pages from the end: “I want
to slow down now, and check out the scenery, and put in a stop or two.
I want some semi-colons.”)

Sometimes a lack of expected punctuation can be extremely effective. . . .

Since we’re talking punctuation, for my money Don DeLillo employs the comma better than anyone writing today. I’ve seen him do it as far back as his early works Great Jones Street and End Zone, although his use of the comma seems to have grown more gnomic and deliberate as he developed his late elliptical style, as can be seen quite nicely in Falling Man.

A while back Matthew Sharpe had some worthwhile thoughts on how exactly DeLillo does it:

One of the qualities of DeLillo’s prose I’ve admired since I began
reading him more than a dozen years ago is its analytic rigor, the way
he can use a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph to bore into the texture
and meaning of contemporary life. And one of the grammatical
constructions he uses repeatedly as the vehicle for his insights is
apposition, which is when two nouns or noun phrases, usually adjacent
to each other in a sentence, have the same referent and stand in the
same syntactical relation to the rest of the sentence, as in, “George
W. Bush, the worst president in U.S. history, is on vacation.”
Apposition allows a writer two or more passes in a row at coming up
with a verbal equivalent for a given phenomenon, wherein each pass
amplifies the others. The result can be a kind of verbal Cubism, a
grammatical form of hopefulness in which each periphrastic utterance
brings you closer to the truth of the subject under discussion.

All of this seems right on the mark to me, but especially the last, "in which each periphrastic utterance
brings you closer to the truth of the subject under discussion." Often DeLillo’s writing feels like the literary equivalent of slow, methodical minimalism in classical music, building a superstructure piece by piece with bracing exactitude right before the reader’s eyes.

DeLillo stacks little units of meaning–the appositives Sharp mentions–one by one, circling around a given idea but never enunciating it. (And this goes hand in hand with one of DeLillo’s career-long themes: the untellable.) The thing that has always been so striking for me is that the narrative voice comes across as slow and ponderous. I attribute it to how he uses the comma.

For a use of the comma the does the opposite, that is, speeds you along through prose, I recommend Horacio Castellanos Moya’s recently published novel Senselessness. Here the comma is used to create sentences of great length and complexity, but as Moya rarely employs the semi colon or colon, the sentences never quite slow down the way, say, Proust’s do. For example:

Then I stood up and began to pace around the room, by now I was utterly possessed, my imagination whipped up into a whirlwind that in a split second carried me into the office of the aforementioned, at the hour of the night when nobody remained in the archbishop’s palace except that Jorge fellow there in his office, supposedly poring over his accounts but really savoring the knowledge that he had shit on me, my humanity, so focused on that thought that he didn’t hear me arrive and thus couldn’t react when I stabbed him in the liver, a blow that made him fall to his knees, surprise and terror in his eyes, mouth gaping, his two hands trying to staunch the flow of blood for his liver, making him even more incapable of defending himself when I stabbed him a second time under his sternum, with ever greater fury this time, such was my spite, my zealous arm plunging the knife again and again into the body of that arrogant Panamanian who had refused to pay me my advance . . .

I like the way Moya employs fragments, linking them together with commas instead of periods to give a flow-like feel, as opposed to. The. Staccato. Of. Periods. He keeps the sentence bouncy by juxtaposing long and short fragments, and when we get to the heart of the action–the stab–we get a lengthy run-up clause followed by three short punctuating clauses (no pun intended) that climax the action.

It’s no coincidence that Senselessness is about senseless violence and a man losing his mind, two topics that are well-suited to the chaotic, rampaging approach that characterizes almost the entirety of this short, spirited work.


The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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