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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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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.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Semi-colon So Ian Jack responds to the charges made by Trevor Butterworth in the Financial times that "a tell-tale sign of the difference between certain kinds...
  2. The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers Maybe about a year back, McSweeney’s launched its Believer Books imprint. Initially, Believer Books repurposed items originally printer in The Believer into slim volumes, like...
  3. Tips for Writers In The Guardian, Zadie Smith on writing. I want you to think of a young man called Clive. Clive is on a familiar literary mission:...
  4. Slow Man In this week's The New Republic, John Banville turns in a pretty good review of Coetzee's Slow Man. The interesting thing about the reviews of...
  5. Friday Column: Prodigious Writers To get us started, a couple familiar Frenchmen. Honore de Balzac wrote well over 100 novels and plays. The great majority of them went...

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6 comments to How Effective Writers Use Colons and Commas

  • In recent years, I’ve begun to suspect that the English actually view the colon’s role differently than we do in American English, using it primarily as we use the semi-colon. I used to think it was just a quirk of Anthony Powell’s writing (which is full of odd grammatical constructions), but I’ve recently realized that it’s all over Waugh, both Amises, and even, if memory serves, Trollope.
    Your example from DeLillo is good, and it remind me of what I love about the comma: the way its careful deployment can control, to a quite fine degree, the pace and rhythm of a sentence. At the other end of the seriousness spectrum, Wodehouse is particularly good at using the comma to group–or, often, to delay–particularly comic elements of a description.

  • Manuel Puig is great with commas. Anyone who teaches college composition knows the most common syntactical error is the comma splice (since 1975 I have written “CS” on about twenty zillion essays), but it can work wonders in interior monologue.

  • I’ve always admired the playful essay “Notes on Punctuation” from _The Medusa and the Snail_ by Lewis Thomas. Of semicolons, he writes, “The things I like best in T.S. Eliot’s poetry, especially in the Four Quartets, are the semicolons. You cannot hear them, but they are there, laying out the connections between the images and the ideas. Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.”
    There’s a version online here:
    http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/punctuation.html

  • w

    Thanks for this. Moya was channeling Bernhard quite a bit in this book, I believe. And I sigh, too, over the control of the subject and the comma in Jose Saramago’s and Bohumil Hrabal’s sublime sentences.

  • jh

    Lowry also does some crazy things using commas.

  • Punctuation

    How effective writers use commas and colons.

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