Sunday, April 12, 2009

Commas 'n' Sh*t by Pari Noskin Taichert

Pari Noskin Taichert celebrates New Mexico's quirkiness through Sasha Solomon, a reality-challenged, whipped-cream dependent PR consultant who helps small towns with tourism projects. Pari is a two-time Agatha Award nominee. Unlike Sasha, Pari is married, has kids and leads a normal life. * (blog) * (newsletter)

Commas 'n' Sh*t
by Pari Noskin Taichert

So I'm sitting on the can reading BE COOL by Elmore Leonard and come across this quote: "You just put down what you want to say, then you get somebody to add the commas and shit, fix up the spelling if it needs it. The way this one's going I think it'll write itself."

Chili Palmer and his buddy Elaine are discussing writing screenplays, but the whole enchilada gets me thinking about punctuation (after I scoff at the idea that anything writes itself. Yeah, right.).

Many posts on Murderati have to do with the art of creating crime fiction -- and our blog's readers enjoy these insights -- but commas, well, they affect us all. It doesn't matter if you're writing the Great American Novel or a thank-you to Grandma Rose, you put a comma in the wrong place and your meaning gets shot to smithereens.

Don't get me started on misplaced periods. And colons? Forgettaboutit.

I bet everyone reading this post, everyone surfing the Internet, has some bugaboo -- some grammatical tic -- that makes him or her seem super-special or sound super-stupid.

Me? I'm a recovered ellipses addict.

Right now, I'm fond of the em-dash. My first drafts always look like abacuses, those little lines are -- well -- everywhere. (Parentheses can make life worth living sometimes.) Commas are pretty fun, too. No, really, I mean it. And, a couple of years ago I learned about the joys of semicolons and now I can't seem to stop myself from using them for lists; to clarify divisions between commas; to connect two similar thoughts; to spice things up. If you get my drift.

I'm not even going to get into misspellingg; that's totally, like, digesting. (No. I didn't mean that.) Disgusting. (Yeah, that's it.) Oh, and that leads me to using the wrong word. Talk about a criminal. (Darnit! Did it again.) It's a crime.

And then there are all the rules we break on porpoise, um, purpose. But, you must know what I'm talking about here. Sentence fragments. The prepositions that other sentences end with.

Yet, I've never been interested in studying books about commas 'n' sh*t. I think some mistakes, or deliberate grammatical snubs, make for good reading.

The problem is when the reader becomes too aware of the tricks, when the punctuation distracts from the storytelling. I don't care if it shows a writer's cleverness or devotion to propriety -- if I notice the punctuation/grammar -- I'm knocked out of the read. And, I usually resent it.

So, what about all of you?
What grammatical crimes do you consistently commit?
Which ones drive you bonkers when you see them in someone else's work?


Chester Campbell said...

I share a lot of your feelings, Pari. One that gets me is the lack of commas in a run-on sentence. Gimme a break. I need to pause somewhere and catch my breath.

Pari said...

I suffer from the other disease . . . give me any sentence with more than, say, three words, and I'll find a way to stick in a couple of commas.

Neil Plakcy said...

I've been editing lately and keep finding these little tics I have. "Started to," for example. "Seemed to." And "just."

As a matter of fact I started to write this post and then it seemed that I was just going off on a tangent...

B.G. Ritts said...

I never know where to put commas -- and reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves didn't help (the book was entertaining, though).

Shirley Wetzel said...

Hi Pari, it's me, Shirley in Houston. My favorite newspaper columnist, Leon Hale, wrote about this very thing last week - "Who needs a stinkin comma"
He says punctuation is a fairly new development now i understand why my grandmothers letters written in 1922 are just one long sentence that goes on for 4 pages and I can still understand what she is saying

pari said...


You name three of my biggies -- ones that I really have to edit down. The problem, especially with "started to", is that it really expresses something to me: the beginning of an action.

I've got to find a way around hitting the reader over the head with it.

Pari said...

Hello again!

I never read that book though many have recommended it as fun. My mother in law has a PhD in English and she was amused with ESL but said it was written for British English rather than American.

pari said...

How wonderful to hear from you! I don't know if you know that the first book in my new series takes place in River Oaks?

The manuscript is with my agent right now.

As to the columnist's information about punctuation . . . Wow.

I remember when I was first learning Chinese, I was just freaked out because there was no punctuation.

You know what? I got used to it.

pari said...

Looks like it's a quiet and calm day after Easter.

Thanks so much to Kaye for having me and to everyone who stopped by.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Ooooh - punctuation.
I am awful. AWFUL!
I'm just like BG - I never know where to put a comma, so a lot of my sentences end up like Shirley's granny's.
big sigh.
Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you'll come again.