On the flight here I was catching up on this week’s New Yorker, and it has one of the finest essays I can remember reading on the mechanics of writing. Self-confessed “comma queen” Mary Norris, who has been a “query proofreader” at the magazine for more than twenty years, has the lead article in an anniversary issue, and she talks about her obsession with punctuation and what it means in terms of the qualitative and quantitative meaning of a bit of text:
The comma as we know it was invented by Aldo Manuzio, a printer working in Venice, circa 1500. It was intended to prevent confusion by separating things. In the Greek, komma means “something cut off,” a segment. (Aldo was printing Greek classics during the High Renaissance. The comma was a Renaissance invention.) As the comma proliferated, it started generating confusion. Basically, there are two schools of thought: One plays by ear, using the comma to mark a pause, like dynamics in music; if you were reading aloud, the comma would suggest when to take a breath. The other uses punctuation to clarify the meaning of a sentence by illuminating its underlying structure. Each school believes that the other gets carried away.
She goes on at wonderful length describing the serial, or “Oxford” comma, which I admit that I use regularly, enthusiastically, and diligently (see what I did there?). The Oxfords comma prevents ambiguity like this:
“We invited the strippers, J.F.K. and Stalin.”
But it can seem pedantic, too, and she contrasts this with the technically useless commas in writing by James Salter:
“She smiled that stunning, wide smile.”
That’s grammatically incorrect (can you replace the comma with “and” and still have the sentence sound right? uh, no…), but it’s lyrically right on.
A couple of days ago I found myself almost accidentally describing a stringcourse detail as like a “semicolon,” and reading this essay made my delve into my subconscious a bit and think about how detailing is really the architect’s version of punctuation. We use it sometimes as a technical ordering system, other times as a stylistic device. Kahn’s concrete reveals, for instance, punctuated his walls into human scale, legible phrasing that lets you read their construction (technique) and their overall proportion (poetics) brilliantly. Norris’ essay, with some translating and replacing designers for writers, could be a manifesto for why detail (punctuation) matters, and why staying up all night wondering about whether a comma (shot line) is in the right place or not is really the essence of what we do. Speaking of another New Yorker piece by Marc Fisher, she writes that his
…punctuation is almost like Braille, providing a kind of bas-relief, accentuating the topography of the sentence. It looks choppy, but you don’t have to chop it up when you read it….It’s not insane—it’s not even nutty. It’s just showing what’s important in the sentence in a subtle way. Another publication would let you figure it out for yourself. And, if that’s what you want, you can always read some other magazine.