Philip Hensher corrects me on my commas

Correctly, to be fair to him, if unkindly.

It’s in the context of a discussion of Orlando Figes’ wife’s Amazon reviews and the defensibility of anonymous online reviews more generally. The discussion is over at the Guardian’s book blogs, here.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Philip Hensher corrects me on my commas

  1. I may have misread the unkindness. Tone is difficult online. In any event, it’s the correctness that matters.

    Oddly enough, I keep meaning to get round to reading the Truss, with such a recommendation how can I resist further?

  2. Clever use of splice comma in that comment, Max. It is a device that was definitely frowned on my newspaper days, but I think that was mainly because it made sentences too long. I also have the impression that American English frowns on the splice comma much more than UK English.

  3. He’s probably right that I overuse it though. To be honest, kindly meant or unkindly, I did mean to get round to the Truss. Grammar can always be improved.

    Besides, if I were attending a creative writing class, just think how much I’d have to pay for a Philip Hensher tutorial…

    It’s actually a habit born of my being a lawyer, it’s correct form in a lot of legal drafting – it breaks up the sentence and so aids comprehension. Sentences often can’t help but be long, due to what’s being said, so any break is welcome. Splice commas are a valuable tool in that context, second nature to me.

    Legal practice and literary style are, I fear, uneasy bedfellows.

  4. I was going to mention that your legal background probably encourages the device as a way of stringing together a number of related thoughts or items. And I suspect if I pulled Proust off the shelf, I would find examples on just about every page.

  5. French literature uses it heavily from what I’ve seen. So does Anthony Powell actually, I suspect I use it more since reading him.

    That said, Wikipedia has the following Truss quotes which seem apposite:

    “so many highly respected writers observe the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you’re famous.”

    “Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous. Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.”

    I’m not sure I agree, but then I would say that, and besides, who am I to put myself against Truss?

    That’s Powell’s influence, after reading him I think nothing of five or six commas in a sentence. I’m not sure he always got away with it either, for all his greater fame.

    On Powell, I mean to pick up some of his other works soon, though my reading backlog currently is heavy so it may be a while yet.

  6. I over use dashes, and I don’t put in the correct spacing. I could argue that this is my style, but ask me if I care.

  7. LOL Guy. Surely the joy of blogging – and of commenting on blogs – is that we don’t have to use perfect grammar (as Max suggested over in that Guardian chat). The main point is to be understood … I loved Truss’s book, and I like good, formal writing BUT there’s a time and place, and this place is surely about sharing ideas, not harping on grammar.

    Thanks for pointing us to a fascinating discussion Max.

  8. Hey Gummie:
    In one of my (sordid) past lives, I used to be an English/ESL instructor. One of the things I was told (as part of my education) was that if you knew the rules, it was ok to break ’em. But first you had to know the rules.

  9. Oh, I do like being called Gummie! I like that “rule” – in fact I think George Orwell may have said something similar, didn’t he? (I’m too lazy to go check now …)

  10. I don’t know about the Orwell reference, but consider then William Faulkner. Of course, his novels drive me around the bend….

  11. Guy, he gave 6 “rules” of writing and the last one goes: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Here is a report on the 6 rules: http://grammar.about.com/b/2007/06/24/orwells-rules-on-writing.htm

  12. Those are really good common sense rules. However, for the last one–the use of jargon words, I also write for a noir film site, and we are a bunch of enthusiasts who thrive on jargon.

  13. Well then Guy, on that site you apply Rule 6. Actually, jargon is perfectly fine in its place – it’s a great shortcut for people “on the same page” (to use an awful cliche) BUT not good for general writing I think. I rather like noir but am by no means an expert or have kept up with the genre.

  14. I’m a bit of a fanatic.

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