Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Anyone can punctuate; Austen wrote the pauses

Whenever I read one of Geoff Nunberg's "Fresh Air" language commentaries, I'm freshly amazed that so much can be said, lucidly and entertainingly, in a radio piece; reading the prose, you'd swear it was too complex for anything but print. So even if you heard  Nunberg's broadcast today -- rebutting, refuting, and refudiating the idiotic "Jane Austen couldn't write, her editor did it all" story of recent weeks -- you'll want to read it (uncut, with footnotes) at Language Log. A couple of highlights:
By the standards of the time, she wasn't a bad speller. She was inconsistent about possessives, and she sometimes put e before i in words like believe and friendship, but you can find the same thing in the manuscripts of Byron and Scott and Thomas Jefferson — the rules just weren't settled yet. In fact it's pure anachronism to describe any of those things as "wrong" or "incorrect"; it's like calling Elizabeth Bennet a bachelorette.
And if it turns out the semicolons were actually put there by someone else, is it right to say that the style is hers? ... it's an embarrassing question. It reveals a certain obtuseness — about writers and style, and not least, about the semicolon. People have the idea that mastering the semicolon is the acme of prose artistry, as if the mark itself could call a logical structure into being. ... But semicolons don't create a structure; they just point to one. It's nice to know where a semicolon is supposed to go, but it's nothing to swell your chest over. The artistry is in being able to write sentences that require one.
The Austen manuscripts are here, but they're not for the faint of heart or weak of eye.


Amerloc said...

I danced inside when I read his remarks about the semi-colon.

Guess I should go back over to their house and tell him that.

And I should 'prolly dance right now in celebration of your broadening the notice.

Consider this post danced to :)

Charles Kinnaird said...

Oh my goodness! You used the word "refudiate." Was that an intentional tongue-in-cheek, or has that Palinism so easily slipped into the language?

Carol Saller said...

The popularity of this tale about Austen seems to rest on the conviction that writers typically go straight into print without copyediting! Writers are not always thinking about punctuation. Nor should they be. Academic presses routinely clean up the semicolons of English professors, and no one is scandalized.

John Lawler said...

Hurray for the semicolon! I've always liked what Lewis Thomas said about it

"I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn't get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; to read on; it will get clearer."