The uses of grammar

I this month read – and happily clipped – a New Yorker article explaining and defending, among other niceties of punctuation, the magazine’s insistence on the “serial” comma (following the last and of a series).

A kindred soul! I’ve seen recently too many defenses of sloppy editing, punctuation and word choice. In an era of compressed texts and tweets, it is argued, the finer points of communication are for old fuddy-duddies; the younger generation intuits fine distinctions from context.

Nonsense. Language must be rigorously used to be precisely understood, whether in novels or short stories or news articles.

I remember fondly learning the difference between rebut and refute from a grizzled copy editor at The Hartford Times, a WWII veteran who lacked my B.A. but was a better wordsmith. To be an objective journalist, he explained, I shouldn’t imply who might have won an argument: I could report that A rebuttedcountered – B’s argument, but not that A had refuteddisproven – it.

Alas, such niceties fade. nowadays agrees that refute means “to prove to be false or erroneous,” but allows rebut to mean not only “to oppose by contrary proof,” but also (as a third choice) “to refute by evidence or argument.”  !!!  Another loss of verbal precision, and with it the ability to guard the journalist’s impartiality.

My copy editor mentor taught me not to use other verbs. A shouldn’t point out B’s error, for instance: That implies there’s something there to be pointed out; use claim or charge. Similarly don’t use call attention to. You can probably think of other examples yourself.

Sadly, newspapers can’t afford to hire as many copy editors as I remember. Even the New York Times is eliminating one of six routine stops on a typical article’s review before publication. We can expect to see more imprecise or misleading phrasing in print — and even more online, where precision too succumbs to haste.

And don’t get me started on the disappearing subjunctive mood, to express doubt, conditionality or improbability. In the right context, I think anyone can still understand the difference between “Tom may have broken Joe’s jaw; they headed to the ER” and “Tom might have broken Joe’s jaw had not Charlie intervened.” But there are far more instances where was/were, may/might, can/could, will/would express subtleties that are too often lost by a generation that didn’t spend much school time studying grammar or parsing sentences.

Going back to the serial comma, sometimes called the Oxford or Harvard comma: The New York Times reported this month on a labor case that turned on the ambiguity of a Maine state law that failed to use a final comma. Read it here.

The New Yorker’s Daniel Wenger, the kindred soul I mentioned initially, offers several amusing illustrations of ambiguity when the serial comma is omitted. Among them, my favorite: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Texters and tweeters, en garde! You may be missing something, or failing to convey your full meaning. Let’s hear it for grammar, punctuation and punctilious use of words.



Will you cast a vote for my “Scorpions”?

A little help, friends. My short story Scorpions is one of five finalists in a contest by The Penmen Review, the online journal of Southern New Hampshire University’s creative writing program. The finalists will be ranked and prizes given based in part on public scoring. You get only one vote; balloting ends on New Year’s Eve. You can read all five (or only mine, if you’re a blind booster), by clicking here
PS This brings my accepted total to 19.

Topical short-story anthologies

    I’m so new at this that I don’t know whether publishing whole books of topical short stories is or isn’t a new phenomenon. In any case, I now have three stories waiting to be published in palpable paper or ephemeral e-books. The latest is one I originally titled “New Neighbors.” When I learned that Zimbell House was inviting entries for a new anthology to be titled “Neighbors”, I changed my title to Wildlife. It won’t be out until April, so I can only offer a taste of it now.
    Another one accepted last week (total now 18!) is The Terrorist. Like the three dialogue-only pieces, I wrote this one for a competition — by Writers Weekly — with a rather demanding bunch of phrases to be used. It didn’t win that competition, but a Massachusetts-based magazine, “Meat for Tea: A Valley Review,” liked it and will publish it in January.

An age of listening?

   Reading aloud is apparently enjoying renewed popularity.
   I always peruse The New Yorker on my iPad, and am often encouraged to hear the author read an article to me. I’m never tempted, because I read faster than anyone could talk. But I’ve been interested in the phenomenon: In what is often called an age of limited attention span, there are people who want to sit back and listen.
    So I was not entirely taken aback when Kae Sable, managing editor of the Dime Show Review, asked if I might read aloud my Tattoos, which she’d recently published online. “As I read your bio,” she wrote, “I wondered if you still have access to a broadcast environment where you could record?”
    I could probably persuade a few old pals at Channel 3 to give me a hand, but they’re a half-hour away, and I have a decent microphone on my desktop. I recorded a sample to send her, and she said it passed muster. “This feature has been wildly popular in Volume 1,” she wrote.
    Two hours later — two hours! — I finished recording a five-minute story. Thereby hangs a tale.
     I read through it once, played it back, and heard heavy breathing. I pushed my headset mike farther from my nose and mouth.
     Halfway through the second reading, the forced-air heat came on. I finished reading, but when I played it back, the air was audible. I set the thermostat a notch lower.
     I’d barely started the next try when the phone rang.
     I was well into a fourth try at 3 p.m., when my chiming clock stentoriously announced the time.
     I’d almost finished try number five when the dog barked at a workman repairing  a chipped sidewalk visible from the bedroom window. I closed the venetian blind.
     I started again, just before 3:15 – as the damned clock reminded me.
     By this time, I’d rehearsed often enough that I almost had it memorized, and read fairly convincingly. I finished my last try before 3:30, and sent it off to Kae. It’s up with the story: Click here –  Tattoos — to both read it and hear me read it aloud. Reactions welcome.

Another all-dialogue piece finds a home

Yellow Chair Review liked my “Customer Service” so well they accepted it before their deadline for submissions — another thank-you to Bartleby Snopes.

BTW:  brings my count of accepted short stories up to sixteen.  Now if I could find a publisher who liked one of the novellas or the novel . . . .

Get a taste of “Customer Service” here — and pay attention to the agent’s name.


An all-dialogue experiment or two

The rules were absolute: every word within quotes, not even a he-said/she-said.

That was the challenge offered in October by Bartleby Snopes, an online-and-print literary magazine founded in Minneapolis eight years ago. Not an entirely unique idea: Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants is almost entirely dialogue. Nonetheless, a challenge that might be fun.

And Snopes did what I wish every litmag editor would do: Kept what it thought were its best five submissions at any point, promising to report within a few days whether my submission had or had not made it into that probably-publish pile. And if the answer was no, authors were invited to try again, for no additional submission fee.

My first effort, Tattoos, didn’t make the cut — but I kinda liked it, and promptly sent it out to a few others. It was almost as promptly accepted and is now published online by Dime Show Review.

Meantime, I was having fun with the Snopes challenge, so whipped up another, Customer Service. Rejected. Tried again with The Whole Truth. Also rejected. Both have likewise been sent out to others. I especially like the last of the three, and am confident it, too, will find a home. You can get a taste of them (and give me reaction) from Works in Progress on the grey menu bar.

You can read the five Barnaby Snopes winners in January, in its Issue 15. Sad to say, that will apparently be the last issue; editor/founder Nathaniel Tower announced on his blog that he want to put more time and effort into his own writing. A pity.

Meanwhile, you can read my Tattoos online at Dime Show Review — and I’ll keep you posted on the fate of the other two that I wrote to meet Tower’s challenge.