Sunday, March 21, 2010

Holding Up Your Pants with That, Which & Who

By Chris Roerden (copyright 2010)

Note: Chris is our special guest, leading off an entire week of "Nuts and Bolts." Part II of this piece will appear tomorrow. Stay tuned all week for a tune-up of your writing skills!

Suspenders might look old-fashioned, but at least they keep the wearer’s pants from falling down. Contrast that image with the caricature of a fellow sporting only one suspender. Terms that come to mind might include careless, unrefined.

Moving from haberdashery to typography, parentheses are like suspenders, meant to function in pairs. Certain dashes and certain commas also work in pairs. The latter are called, not surprisingly, parenthetical commas.

Words contained within a pair of commas (like the preceding “not surprisingly”) are not essential to the meaning of a sentence. They may enrich its meaning, but they could be omitted without changing it. Parenthetical content is also known as non-restrictive, because the meaning of the rest of the sentence is not restricted or controlled by either the absence or the presence of parenthetical content. It functions like a stage-whispered aside.

Example 1: Jeffery Deaver, internationally celebrated author, will teach a 90-minute class for writers on May 1, 2010, in High Point, NC, as part of an all-day skill-building workshop.

Notice how the comma-enclosed words after the author's name add information that could be omitted, especially for audiences who already recognize his name and enjoy his mysteries and thrillers. Notice that the year following the month and date could also be omitted, especially in a discussion of 2010 events. And the state abbreviation could be dropped, too, especially for readers who most likely recognize High Point as part of North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad.

Using parenthetical commas is the same as using actual parentheses--except at the end of a sentence. There, the closing parenthesis mark) remains intact, no matter what end punctuation is added, whereas the closing parenthetical comma is replaced by a period (or other end punctuation, such as a question mark or exclamation point).

Parenthetical commas are an endangered species. I regularly encounter only half a pair, as in Example 2: Jeffery Deaver will teach a 90-minute class for writers on May 1, 2010 in High Point, NC as part of an all-day skill-building workshop co-sponsored by Sisters in Crime. Careful readers wince when encountering open-ended parenthetical phrases like the above, and I wonder what happened to the missing punctuation.


Join us tomorrow when Chris will explain when to use "that, which and who."


Chris Roerden, who doesn't pretend to be a grammarian, has nevertheless edited authors published by St. Martin's, Berkely Prime Crime, Midnight Ink, Viking, Rodale, Intrigue, and many others.

Her DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY received the Agatha Award and was shortlisted for the Anthony and Macavity. DON'T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION, the all-genre version, received the 2009 Benjamin Franklin Award™ for Literary Criticism, the Florida Writers Association's Royal Palm Book of the Year Award, and ForeWord Magazine's Bronze Medal for Writing Book of the Year.


Jill said...

Thanks for the reminder/explanation. It is astounding how few people know the nuts and bolts of writing! For aspiring novelists, a weakness in this skill can mean lights out, especially if the query letter has mistakes.

Camille Minichino said...

It's also astounding how many errors survive copyediting and make it to publication!

Thanks for visiting, Chris.

Betty Hechtman said...

Thanks for the lesson, Chris.

Chris Roerden said...

Thank you Camille, Jill, Betty. For gatekeepers brought up on yu for you, the niceties of usage and punctuation no doubt sound fussy and old fashioned, and I'm often asked to defend the label "error." Though many folks don't consider a missing parenthetical comma an error, similar mechanical lapses accumulate so that sharp readers form a general opinion about the writer's accuracy and attention to detail. Right or wrong, a MS's acceptance or rejection results from just such opinions.

Anonymous said...

Good reminders to all of us who may be rushing through our own editing. I totally enjoyed Eats,
Shoots & Leaves - as well as your book - and this reinforces what I've read there. Gloria Alden

Gargantua said...

Ah, commas. So helpful, and so easy to misplace. They are the bane of my writing, I will admit. Thinking of one usage like a pair of parentheses helps. Thanks.