Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Must Dash!

Reader, I finished it. I refer, of course, to the book I was reading—Between You & Me, by Mary Norris. Loved it through and through, and enjoyed learning where the name "the Bronx" came from. Not telling, no spoilers.

You'll all want to read the Confessions of a Comma Queen (subtitle):  People who like the play Wit would like the chapter on the semi-colon. My niece, Jessa, would appreciate the chapter on the apostrophe. My Ohio relatives and friends would enjoy Norris's references to Cleveland and the Hocking Hills. Some of us actually vacationed together for a week in the Hocking Hills but not, it turns out, when the pencil-sharpener museum was part of the visitor center there. Must go back!

And my mom will enjoy the whole book, so I will let her borrow it, and she can keep it as long as she wants, the way I kept The Triggering Town, by Richard Hugo, so long that she had to replace it. Sigh.... Sorry, Mom. 

One year for Christmas I got her The Elements of Style, her favorite style manual, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, but this was the version illustrated by Maira Kalman. Then, the very next year, I think, she gave me a copy! So now it's sort of coupling on my desk with the Norris book, a red and yellow coupling that, I guess, would produce orange babies.

I am making liberal and, I trust, correct use of commas here—in celebration! Along with the dash, which also gets a chapter in the book. Some copy editors would disapprove of my frequent exclamation points! Some would hate my sentence fragments. But I think Mary Norris would permit me my foibles….if I ever got published in The New Yorker.

For now, I share with you one of her paragraphs on Emily Dickinson, queen of the dash. Norris had earlier made this comparison: “Dashes, like table forks, come in different sizes, and there is a proper use for each.” She likens the longer, one-em dash to a dinner fork and the shorter, one-en dash to a salad fork. (My use of commas in the previous sentence matches that of one writer whose commas she let stand; forgive me, I am under the influence.) Anyway, here you go:

The most famous proponent of the dash was, of course, the poet Emily Dickinson, and it is because of her that, for me, the dash has a feminine slant. With Emily Dickinson at the table, my simplistic division of dashes into table forks and salad forks falls apart. She used dashes for everything, and sometimes for two things at once. If a different size and style of fork were assigned to each of her various dashes, the table setting would require not just dessert forks and fondue forks and those tiny forks used for teasing out snails but also tuning forks and pitchforks. (Norris, page 137)

Confessions: I had to compose in Word, not in Blogger, to get my em-dashes to work; I looked up “manual” just to be safe; and I almost always have to look up the word “niece” to get the “i” before the “e,” thanks to a misapprehension of a mnemonic device about nieces and nephews. Sigh…. The commas and semi-colon in my Confessions above are a combination of Walt Whitman’s and Henry James’s usage of commas and semi-colons, and, yes, that is how to make James’s name a possessive!

No comments: