“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” ~Arthur Polotnik
As an editor, the bulk of major problems I encounter are at the sentence level. Yes, sometimes the entire submission is off (doesn’t follow instructions, lacks direction, etc.), and sometimes the word choice or punctuation makes me sad inside, but most often it’s those infernal sentences.
The English language leaves plenty of room for communication fumbles, but one of the most hilarious happens with apposition. Apposition, the placement of a second term or phrase after a first to elaborate on the nature of that first term or phrase, is an invaluable tool – but when you don’t treat it with care, it will come back to bite you.
Example the First
For this example, let’s pretend I’m one of those (idiotic) people who don’t use the Oxford comma. And let’s pretend I have a sense of humor, and thus am telling a joke. The joke starts like this:
The lady walked into a bar, followed closely by a duck, a psychopath and a vegetarian.
There are two excellent ways to interpret this. First, a woman walked into a bar, then a duck, a psychopath, and vegetarian followed her in. Second (and I absolutely prefer this one), a woman is followed into a bar by a duck who is a psychopath and a vegetarian (like Hitler!).
Image courtesy of Shenziholic
(I am so happy that this image exists!)
But let’s assume that what we really meant was that a group of four (woman, duck, psychopath, vegetarian) all came into a bar. How would we fix the ambiguity? Well, the first and most obvious way is to use the Oxford comma (so add one more reason to the list!). However, you could also re-cast the sentence as “A woman, a duck, a psychopath and a vegetarian walked into a bar.” The structure of the sentence makes the lack of apposition clear (there would be a comma after “vegetarian” if we were going for apposition, after all).
By the way, now that I’ve started the joke, I’m ever-so-curious how to ends. Leave your punchline in the comments section below for a chance to win my favorite type of cookie, chocolate chip and giant. (I’ll work on how I’ll locate that giant later.)
In my last entry, I wrote about the micro-macro-global conception of written work. I wanted to take the opportunity to talk a bit about the academic bias for micro-level writing and how that plays into elitism and the tension between genres.
When I talk about revisions, I often talk about work that needs to happen at a specific “level” of the piece. While you could divide a written work in a basically infinite number of ways, my preferred terminology is micro-macro-global (which I find to be especially pragmatic and functional). Here’s a brief overview of the micro, macro, and global levels, followed by some notes on how this conceptualization can be used effectively.
If you’re here looking for the simple answer to this simple question, here goes:
That was easy, wasn’t it? But, since you probably asked that question because what you were taught before contradicts what you’re being taught now, let me clarify the ins and outs of this particular writing rule.
Ah, the hyphen. As one of the world’s most ambiguous bits of punctuation, the hyphen has become the source of confusion, despair, and bone-rattling terror for writers around the world. But the mystery of the hyphen is far from impenetrable – and by understanding why we use this little dash, you’ll get a much better sense of how to use it.
The Basics of the Hyphen
Let’s start with the core function of hyphens: The hyphen clarifies modifiers.