Would it kill you to punctuate properly?

Regular readers will know I complain about bad copy editing in books.

I mean, really, people. If you’re going to put something on paper and between two hard covers and expect me to cough up $25 for it run it through a goddamn spellcheck. It’s free with Microsoft Word.

At work, we don’t send anything to anyone without overediting. “It wouldn’t hurt to get another pair of eyes on that,” I hear after the fifth round of proofing—and that’s just for the sign-up sheet for the holiday potluck.

Still, as an editor and a former copy editor, I can see how errors are introduced, how they are missed and how much simple errors cheapen otherwise beautiful work.

Most errors happen as a result of speed: You will miss things when someone is looking over your shoulder and you’re already past deadline. But I believe more errors are made by second-guessing at the last minute. When copy’s been edited and re-edited and OK’d then copy edited and, finally, proofed, no one should be making any changes. Occasionally, at the last minute, someone will spot an error that had been missed by five professionals, and that’s always a good thing. But usually these last-minute changes are “Do we really want to start this sentence with ‘And?’ I remember my high school English teacher saying…” You start asking for changes like that and you’re asking for trouble, mostly because I’m likely to punch you.

Anyway, I’m somehow off topic: The topic is punctuation and how many people use it incorrectly. (“Yoga is now Wednesday’s at 10 a.m.” read a disappointing sign at my gym this morning.)

I bring this up because I recently read two books whose punctuation got in the way of my enjoyment. Both these books were translations, which might explain one of the books. But the other? The author used punctuation in ways hitherto unknown to readers anywhere.

twoLet’s start with that one. Daniel Sada is one of Mexico’s most celebrated novelists. (It must be true, it says so on the back of the book.) That information and the fact that “One Out of Two” is only 88 pages was enough to convince me to bring it home from the library. The story is about identical twin spinster sisters who leap at what they believe is their last chance at love. Once a week this man comes into town and the sisters alternate dates with him. They, of course, never say they have an identical twin, so he’s none the wiser, though he’s a little put off by the bizarre mood swings from week to week. I liked the premise and Sada writes as though it were a legend or fairy tale, which makes for a nice style. But the punctuation of this novel almost made me stop reading it. Ellipses, colons, semicolons, dashes were all placed with gay abandon throughout the text. It was as though he couldn’t control his fingers while typing; it made no sense.

To wit:  “The time they spent in that town could be summed up in three words: ‘They found work.’ They learned to sew in a small garment factory: yes: there was skill and there was excellence, but never originality, working only from premade patterns, complying only to others’ tastes, without any personal flair; their compensation was a comfortable salary and defective minds.” And this isn’t even the worst of the passages. In fact, only in writing this do I get the full effect of what he’s saying in the sentence. Anyway: it was an interesting work; if you can get: by the punctuation.

asherThe next book, Deborah Levy-Bertherat’s “The Travels of Daniel Ascher,” went to the other extreme.

I picked this book up because I liked its cover and because it was a runaway bestseller in France. I had just rotted on two books by French writers and was feeling bad for the country and its readers.

“Travels,” too, has an interesting premise: Daniel is a writer whose series “The Black Insignia” has enthralled generations of French children. Helene is his niece who is indifferent to the books and finds Daniel a bit of a fool for his work, his lifestyle (he travels widely and has never settled down) and the way he seems to be always “on.” When she moves to Paris to study archaeology, she reconnects with Daniel and—urged by her boyfriend who loved the books since he was a child—begins to look into his past to try to understand the inspiration for the books and the motivation of the characters in them. What she finds is a fairly compelling family secret that has its roots in World War II.

Levy-Bertherat presents the story of Daniel’s past in small doses, juxtaposing the real-life information with plots of his various books. It works very well and is sweet and moving and gets to the very center of why writers write. The ending is problematic, but, well, OK, not everything can be wrapped up in a nice bow.

The issue is her lack of quotation marks, which forced me to concentrate intensely or reread simply to understand what was going on.

An example: Helene is looking at a photo album with her grandmother “Don’t you think he looks a bit lost, she asked, who do you mean, Daniel, no he doesn’t, why lost.” It’s clearly a choice, though why she made that choice is beyond me. It leads to strings of run-on sentences which leads to confusion. In addition, there are several instances in which words are left out of sentences. That’s also irritating.

I get that there are instances when tossing punctuation rules out the window can help drive home a point or create a mood or style. But when it gets in the way of reading, no matter how unique the voice, it’s not the right choice.

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4 thoughts on “Would it kill you to punctuate properly?

  1. I’ve seen similar punctuation issues in British literature. At first, I thought it incorrect. Eventually, however, I realized the punctuation was consistent with other literature from the same area.
    Still, when translating from one language to another, it seems the rule would be to also use punctuation consistent with the language to which you are translating.

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    1. I’ve seen odd punctuation in books printed in the UK: Single quote marks where we use double, and vice versa. I think you’re right about the rule to change punctuation to the standard of the language you are translating it to. However, what if it’s a writing style issue? I think approximating the style, while making it standard to the new language would pose its own set of problems. Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Charles

    I do believe that there are different rules of punctuation in french, particularly in the area of quotations of dialogue. They do not use quotation marks in the same way we do in English. Perhaps this was an issue with the editing of the french novel.

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