Parenthetic expressions, and what I learned from Tolstoy…

And so here is the next instalment of my series that looks to apply every single rule from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style to my manuscript. Rules 3 to 5.


3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

This is something that I have always done.

Example: And so, aware of Banshee hiding within the dark cloak of the small absorption nebula, and armed with intelligence that the notorious leader of the NA was personally in command, the British had watched her take the bait.

Oh well, no major revelations as to how this will improve my work.

This rule does, however, bring up another point that has always intrigued me: that of using a hyphen (—) instead of brackets ( ) to bracket the parenthesis.

Example: For these men, the mentally punishing and hard-trodden road to leadership would also — occasionally — offer up days for a young man to relish.

Leo TolstoyI first saw Tolstoy using this technique and I copied it. I don’t like using brackets in my novels (but I use them  in my blog) because I feel it lends the text an aspect of the ‘university essay’. I may be wrong about this application, and I know I’m not the only writer to do it, but — and keeping with the theme of this series — it’s all about the style and not necessarily the correct grammar.

Note: Strunk and White do go on to say that hyphens are also an acceptable form of punctuation here.

4. Place a comma before an injunction introducing an independent clause.

So, once again, this is something that I’ve always done. But, once again, this opens up another point that I’ve never really been so sure about: what Stunk and White define as “when the connective is ‘and’ the comma should be omitted if the relationship between the two statements is close or similar”.

Example: Naturally, the navy didn’t make this easy for candidates, and the path to this celebrated promotion was littered with hardship, fatigue, sweat and anxiety.

And without the comma: Naturally, the navy didn’t make this easy for candidates and the path to this celebrated promotion was littered with hardship, fatigue, sweat and anxiety.

Hmm. I think the omission may actually work here, which is a pain because using the ‘find’ function on Pages I seem to have 502 instances where a comma precedes an ‘and’. Oh dear. Admittedly many of these are Oxford commas… but many aren’t. Do I really go through the whole lot and remove any commas to bring my work in line with this rule? I think that one over.

In the meantime…

5. Do not join independent clauses with a comma.

Ah, alright. This begins to talk about semicolons; one of the more confusing pieces of grammar. Rule 5 says that if the clauses in a sentence are independent, use a semicolon or a full stop, not a comma (unless you add a conjunction).

The Elements of Style, Strunk and WhiteHere are three examples that Strunk and White use:

Mary Shelly’s works are engaging; they are full of good ideas.

Mary Shelly’s works are engaging. They are full of good ideas.

Mary Shelly’s works are engaging, for they are full of good ideas.

They say the first example is the most effective as it suggests a close relationship between the two statements; a relationship that is missing in the second. The third example is also correct, but the use of a conjunction makes it longer and thus less forcible. I agree.

So, this series of posts has yet again made me look at my own manuscript whilst clarifying a few rules – and I’m only on post number two. And talking of clarifying rules… I did eventually return to those 502 commas preceding ‘and’ and I went through the whole bloody lot. It took me a couple of hours, but the result was well worth it. It tightened-up and pepped-up the text as well as getting rid of 273 un-needed commas. They say novice writers put too many commas in their work, and by jove I was no exception. It’s a classic case of what I like to call Commacide (the over-use of commas).

The next post will cover rules 6 and 7: Do not break sentences in two and Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation (whatever the hell that means).

Thanks for reading.


5 comments on “Parenthetic expressions, and what I learned from Tolstoy…

  1. I love that the style guide supports using semi-colons; I love the things, but so many people hate (hence I’m avoiding them in my manuscript).

    You might be inspiring me to seek out a copy from my uni days

    • gpeynon says:

      I’ve got a few of them in my MS; sometimes nothing else will do the job properly. I thought S&W’s ‘Mary Shelly’ example was brilliant.

      Yes you should fish out a copy. Apparently Obama’s speech writer carries his copy everywhere he goes… and he can write a neat little sentence or two.

  2. […] there we are; nowhere near as much work to do as on my previous post. The next post will cover rules 9, 10 & 11, and will see us entering some slightly more tricky […]

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