Notional concord redux

I wrote about the concept of notional concord here. Refresh your memory if you like before reading farther. I’ll wait.

All right. I just encountered the following.

“Each of these disparate images have their own story […]”

The problem is that phrase “of these disparate images.” Without that, we know that “each” implies a singular thing, one item, and therefore takes a singular verb. However, as soon as we put a phrase after it that contains a plural noun, things get complicated. The MWDEU invokes Copperud and says that “notional agreement appears to be gaining ground over grammatical agreement.”

That means, in plain language, that people are using plural verbs with “each” in this situation about as often as they’re using singular ones. The notion of number (singular or plural, as perceived by the reader/writer) is malleable.

Except it’s not to me, because I’m an old hard-ass. I’m with Garner, who says (in the 4th edition):

“… the best practice is to write each … is regardless of whether a plural noun intervenes (each of the members is).”

For myself, in my head I hear/see “each one” instead of “each.” That cements it for me. “Each one of these disparate images has its own story…” That construction relegates “each” to an adjective, modifying “one”, which becomes the subject.

Some of you will be clucking your tongues and shaking your heads and muttering about me being a stick in the mud. To you, I say only “Singular they should be used whenever it is appropriate, which is almost always.”

Stick THAT in your mud.

Intrusions: ems or parens?

I have an inordinate fondness for–some might say obsession with–intrusions.

Not physical ones. I don’t get into breaking down doors or smashing windows. I’m not talking B&E here. I mean written ones, like the one in the first sentence in this post. ¬†That clause in the parentheses is an intrusion. Why did I choose em dashes over parentheses?

To me, it feels more connected to the sentence it’s intruding on than it might if I worded it differently, so I set it off with ems. There’s a sense of “setting aside,” but not as far to the side as it could be. I can’t quantify it, I’m sorry to admit. It’s a sensibility, one of those things one develops over time, with experience. Another editor might feel the opposite of this, and prefer to use ems for things that “feel” like larger departures and parens for ones that “feel” less so.

But I digress. The main issue here turns out to be mechanics. Specifically, commas.

If your digression/intrusion requires a comma afterward, you’ll have to use parentheses. It’s simply Not Done, putting a comma after an em dash when it’s signifying an intrusive thought.

She picked up the soda (ordered an hour or so before, and now quite warm), the croissant (also an hour old, and now rather cold), and her phone, and left the diner.

If she was only picking up one thing, you could use ems:

She picked up the soda–ordered an hour or so before, and now quite warm–and left the diner.

NB: However, you can put a comma after an em when the dash signifies cut-off speech, like this:

“Didn’t even leave a tip. What a cheap bi–,” he muttered, censoring himself before anyone could overhear.

That comma is not only acceptable, it’s required. Declarative statement within quotes: put a comma before the closing quote if you’re using a dialogue tag.

But, as usual, I digress. (A rather necessary digression, because I know if I don’t cover that someone out there will bring it up and claim I omitted it even though it’s not exactly on-topic for intrusions.)

(Notice how the period goes inside the closing paren.)

(There. It happened again.)

So, back to the topic. Intrusions are part and parcel of fiction writing, in my experience, but are very rare elsewhere. If you’re writing fiction, whether there’s dialogue or not, you’ll likely find a use for an intrusion. (If you hate them, that’s fine. I’m not prone to inserting them where they were absent, but I’m all about making sure the ones you use are correctly punctuated.) If your intrusion requires a comma afterward, it needs to be set aside with parentheses. If no comma is needed, you can use em dashes.

I’ll leave the question of which feels more “set aside” for you to contemplate. Sensibilities vary.

When beginning matters

“He began to walk across the room.”

“She started to answer.”

Why do I need to know this? Why can’t it just say “He walked” and “She answered”?

This is one of the most common issues I see in my fiction editing work. Characters are forever starting and beginning things they could, quite honestly, just do. So, when does beginning matter? Continue reading “When beginning matters”

A short (no, really), pithy post about a comma

See that comma after the closed parenthesis in the title up there?

That’s where it belongs. This isn’t a style issue. It’s a mechanics rule in AmE. (I suspect it’s the same for BrE, but I couldn’t find an entry for it in my copy of the New Oxford Style Manual.)

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen someone write a sentence with a parenthetical intrusion and put the comma before the opening parenthesis, like this:

I was walking with my mom the other day, (doctor’s orders, you know, after her surgery) and we saw blah blah blah.

It looks so odd, I stop dead every time. Think about it like this. You’re talking along to a friend, okay? And you interrupt yourself mid-thought to add something, but that thing you’re adding actually belongs to what you just said, not to what you’re about to say. It’s semantically and syntactically linked to what came before. In my example, the comment about doctor’s orders is linked to walking with Mom, not to whatever thing we saw.

That’s why the comma goes after the closing parenthesis of the intrusion. We keep the related thoughts — the main one and the related intrusion — together by putting the comma afterward. Of course, this is assuming you need a comma. I’m not going into the variations that don’t. This post is short (remember the title?), pithy, and about commas.

See? I just did it again in the last sentence of the previous paragraph. That’s how it’s done.