The Compulsive Copyeditor

June 22, 2013

The Physicality of Grammar and Punctuation

Filed under: grammar,punctuation,sensory qualities of words — amba12 @ 9:31 am

I have a sneaking suspicion I’ve written on this topic before, and maybe even said the same things. But I’m not going to scroll through old posts to try to avoid repeating myself. This is an obsession of mine, so if you’re my reader, live with it (hell, you probably share it).

The longer I work at this, the more I feel grammar and punctuation in my body. I was born to feel language physically anyway, inheriting (thanks, Mom!) keen and interconnected musical and kinesthetic senses (as someone once said when I told him he resembled Fred Astaire, “You should see me dance!”), but I think having to diagram sentences in what used to be called (not coincidentally) “grammar school” made a large contribution. (Yes, all these undigested parentheses are causing me pelvic pain, too. Sorry. I need a parenthectomy.) Visually seeing the skeleton of a sentence, the connection and dependency or balance of clauses, made it as logical a little mousetrap as a mathematical equation. Then, I studied German, which has 4 noun cases, and later Russian, which has count-’em 6, and the benefits of studying a language that has noun declension, like the once-required Latin, cannot be overstated for shining a light on the secret declension of nouns in English, which are undergoing this alchemy even though it is invisible to the naked eye. In particular, the identification of the subject, no matter where it is in the sentence, is so brightly illuminated by German grammar that you can never unsee it again, which is one reason why a dangling participle or one of its cousins never gets by me, and rarely fails to give me a good laugh on its way to the gallows. Hardly anyone writing knows about this any more. Yesterday I read, in a description of a certain vine, “if not in bloom you might machete your way through it without a second thought.”

The last ingredient of my kinesthetic editing sense was supplied by a freshman English class at Harvard called Humanities 6. They basically told us that the way to read and to study literature was to notice your own physical and emotional response and then figure out what the author did (deliberately or instinctively) to make that happen. That has served me well as a critic, too. I could have dropped out after freshman year; I’d already acquired all my essential tools by then.

I’m so fascinated by this aspect of copyediting that the editors I work for have to put up with pedantic little scoldings in footnotes. Yesterday I also read this sentence:

We humans rely on vision to navigate the world, and to communicate with those around us, we have developed a highly refined vocabulary for describing what we perceive.

I added the words “in order” before “to communicate,” and wrote in a footnote:

I’m not normally a fan of this construction (because it’s so often added when unnecessary), but here it prevents momentary misreading of the sentence as “we humans rely heavily on vision to navigate . . . , and to communicate,” which then requires the brain to shift gears midsentence.

And I wrote to the author of the sentence about the vine:

“If not in bloom you might . . .” grammatically means if you are not in bloom.

Now, punctuation, the subject that originally got me started writing this post (along with, um, procrastination). I had edited a novel for a writer who, reading proofs, suddenly panicked and wondered whether she wasn’t using too many colons. Looking at the examples she flagged, I was able to assure her that her use of colons was not only appropriate but poised and calming:

It’s as if I’m watching him go through a typical day with his family as a boy of twelve or thirteen: quiet and off on his own, not really talking to anyone

I wrote to her:

It’s good. Quieter, and gives the phenomenon described more space, than a stickier and more urgent em (long) dash.

That got me thinking of punctuation as the equivalent of interpersonal space. A comma, here, would not stand back and contemplate the phenomenon described in the same way; it would hurry past the pause-to-look in an everyday, inattentive way. A colon is like two eyes: it stands still, hands off, and gives the phenomenon its space, lets it have its moment, unmolested, in full attention. It’s respectful. (Re-spect meaning to take a second look.) An em dash, by contrast, grabs the phenomenon by the throat. (Sometimes that’s what you want.) And in this example

I picture one of the candles’ flames being extinguished: it’s that fast that my excitement turns to sadness

you could use a semicolon, but I physically feel a semicolon deflecting attention, turning it aside, the way you’d turn your shoulders to squeeze past someone on a crowded sidewalk. A semicolon gives the phenomenon the cold shoulder.

Okay, I have a book to edit.



  1. Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I tend to be very kinesthetic and then auditory — I feel and hear the punctuation. Maybe it’s the acting too — you have to look at the text and understand what it feels like to be the person speaking those words.

    Comment by Charlie Martin — June 22, 2013 @ 10:36 am | Reply

  2. A colon like two eyes! Oh, exactly.

    Comment by A — June 22, 2013 @ 6:29 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: