This column has ranged pretty widely over topics literary, historical, and philosophical. We’ve looked at some of the more serious social impacts of writing in our pieces on Charlie Hebdo, as well as the impacts that new technology may have on the way we write. Time to get back to the country.
Messrs. Strunk and White notwithstanding, there are really only four elements of style: the words we use, the way we arrange them in a sentence, the way we organize our sentences in a paragraph, and the way we marshal those paragraphs towards the full discussion of our subject. Diction (or word choice), sentence structure, and paragraph development—these are our “units of discourse,” and the word “discourse” itself can help lead us into a deeper reflection on what we’re doing when we write.
(It’s hard to talk about this stuff at all without sounding insufferably pedantic, so let me apologize in advance—or maybe for the moment we can all just give ourselves up to pedantry and rally ‘round the cry of Vladimir Nabokov: “Vive le pedant!”)
Discourse: it’s where we get our word “discussion,” and it comes to English from the French word “discourir” which comes in turn from the Latin word “discursus,” which means running back and forth. When we talk about something, when we have a discussion, the words run back and forth between us.
This is one of the key ways that the written word differs from the spoken. When we’re writing we’re not actually having a discussion with someone else, so the written word has to do the work of two people. (As we have seen, Socrates didn’t think that writing could do that job very well—but that way of thinking is sooo fourth century BC.)
In discursive writing, since we’re not having an actual discussion with someone else, we have to have that discussion with ourselves. We have to think our way through a subject by running back and forth about the words we use and the way we arrange them. We have to argue with ourselves over whether this word or another is appropriate (and what “appropriate” means in this particular case), where to put the words in this particular sentence (depending on the relative importance of each word and clause), how to organize the sentences into paragraphs, and how to arrange the paragraphs.
My favorite example of what I’m talking about has to do with that poor abused, misused, and misunderstood punctuation mark, the comma. Now, I am no comma Nazi. You know the kind of reader I’m talking about—the ones who venerate “The Elements of Style” as a kind of literary Mein Kampf and scour your prose looking for commas that don’t conform to their own personal stigmeology. When I am writing something that I know will be reviewed by one of THOSE readers, I like to spread the ground thick, and use as many, random, rapid-fire, commas, as I can, commas, everywhere, except, where they belong you know to give them, nightmares a veritable farrago of, commas.
But I don’t think that we should be entirely cavalier about commas, either, since they can help us think clearly about what we’re trying to say.
Look at this sentence:
The people in the town who never vote flocked to the polls to elect Hillary.
Setting aside the question of whether you think this sentence is science fiction, look at that clause “who never vote.” In this sentence the full grammatical subject (the full category of thing performing the act of flocking to the polls) is “The people in the town who never vote.” Not all the people, not all the people in the town; just a subset of that population: the people in the town who never vote.
Now watch this—magic with commas:
The people in the town, who never vote, flocked to the polls to elect Hillary.
This is a completely different sentence, that is, it says something different. Now the subject of the sentence is ALL the people in the town. Surrounded by commas, the clause “who never vote” becomes parenthetical; the commas act like parentheses to tell us that the clause “who never vote” is not essential to the meaning of the sentence, and the sentence means the same thing with or without that clause: the people in the town flocked to the polls to elect Hillary. The parenthetical clause just adds more information. And as with parentheses, if you use commas to distinguish a parenthetical clause, you can’t have just one; you have to have two.
As an editor, I frequently see sentences like this:
The people in the town who never vote, flocked to the polls to elect Hillary.
What does that one comma tell me? It tells me I have to get on the phone and call the author and ask, “WHAT are you trying to say here? Are you talking about all the people in the town, or just some of them?”
In a sentence like this, whether we have commas or not will help us readers read the sentence correctly. But commas not only help readers read; they help writers write. Asking myself whether I need commas here or not will force me to think about what, exactly, I am trying to say. Am I talking about all the people in the town? Or just the ones that Hillary inspired to get up off their duffs and vote for the first time?
By making me ask those questions, commas help me think. They help me run back and forth in my own head. And that’s no mean feat.
• Jim Hale can be reached through his website at www.jimhalewriting.com