Assorted Opinions: Dashing Off
“Burial at sea…has always been her ‘wish’,” the captain said.
Here is an opener that would make it hard to quit reading. And why? The mystery is in the punctuation.
Content creators often have rules that represent a house style, implying that punctuation is dead where it fell, and can only lie in that pose forever. Always the Oxford comma; never the Oxford comma. Always the period inside the parenthesis; never the period inside the parenthesis. Always in effect pluralizing a singular possessive that ends in s; never other than Charles’s, the Jones’s.
We punctuate writing for logic. One problem in text is that words sitting next to each other can convey different meanings—the intended and the unexpected. People sometimes use this phenomenon playfully, as this invented example:
The nationalist leader insists she is not a fascist; bitch as they will her detractors.
Or headline writers may sometimes editorialize. A recently famous (apocryphal?) one, re the U.S. presidential physical:
Doctor: No heart, cognitive issues
The punctuation and grammar of a sentence may be fine, and it will still on the page read weirdly. Below, a comma, though not strictly needed, might help break up an awkward set.
People in the minority hate charity relieving them of free choice.
Punctuation in the more complicated sentence puts its components into reading order, as bracketing in mathematical equations puts expressions in solving order. Such constructions are fun for the writer too, because the flow of persuasion at times requires the short-and-sharp; at times a symphonic build-up.
When a statement is offset with parentheses, these contain a relevant aside, but one with no material bearing on the sentence’s meaning. If the parenthetical belongs to a leading or internal clause, the comma logically comes after the closing parenthesis. If the contents are an insertion, where no comma is needed, then the parenthetical doesn’t need to assume one.
I contend it is a piece of cake to put your house in apple-pie order (though those full of beans may have a bone to pick).
There’s no call for a comma after order. Some stylists would prefer placing the period between pick and the closing parenthesis. I don’t, on the logical grounds that it would make the aside actively part of the sentence, and it isn’t meant to be.
Dashes are another type of offset. As in parentheticals, the statement contained within can have its own question or exclamation mark.
In spite of strong evidence of tampering, and the danger of lasting harm, the action a baseball commissioner could hardly avoid taking had cheating tainted a World Series game, goes—unbelievably!—begging where a nation’s well-being is at stake.
The dashed expression is material, and can be commented on.
It amounted to small reparation—it amounted to his paying himself while pretending to right a wrong—but the landlord’s ‘discount’ would have to be accepted.
Then, there’s the double ellipsis. This is appropriate on two occasions: when the character is hesitant in thought or speech; and when dubiety or sardonic humor are being expressed.
It was fine for Lucille to claim wind or the cat could have disarranged things…there, Margot saw again the heavy dictionary fallen to the floor…but after all, they were noticing these oddities, were they not? Did that not imply an introduction, a phenomenon?
“Do you think it’s louche,” she asked, as the driver…showing, at any rate, élan…accelerated into the blind curve, “to be the sort of person who live-streams her own demise?”
All these devices taken together lend a naturalistic progression to a train of thought in close narration…
In actuality, though, rats were intelligent, were they not? More so, perhaps, than…he felt it possible; he had seen uncontrolled horses run simply mad—in which case the conceit…
Inimical, Chapter 9, “Considerations Beyond Understanding”
…or an omniscient narrator’s tone of light humor. Logically, each new thing is mentioned just where it bears on that to which it’s relevant.
And had either newcomer known it, that a family-sized carriage, one confiding wealth—in that its brass lamps shined, their glass intact; the side panels were of a glowing mahogany which, burnished under a coachman’s care, laughed at dust; the spokes of the rubber-tired wheels thrust true (and were not a bit rusted, nor especially dirt-caked for their travels)—was an unusual sight, pulled to a standstill before the Main Street Hotel, one or the other might have remarked on it.
Hammersmith, Chapter 26, “Chickens in a Mood to Roost”
In other words, the parenthetical above briefly expands on the tires; the entire dash-off explains the meaning of a carriage “confiding wealth”; the sentence complete establishes what: “If either had known…one or the other might have remarked.”
And whether the (seemingly) haphazard sentence echoes patterns of natural thought, or whether humorous complications echo those of a humorously complicated plot, these types of offset allow the writer to plug in information, just where it’s needed.
(2018 Stephanie Foster)