by Zoë Sharp
Sorry if I’ve been a bit quiet this last week or so, but I’ve been somewhat out of circulation, if you know what I mean. Been doing a bit of time – hard time, as it turned out, for crimes against the English language.
I’ve spent the last ten days in the custody of the Punctuation Police.
They didn’t so much ask me to help with their enquiries as kick my door down at 2:00am, yank me out of my placid complacency and bundle me, hands tied, into the back of an unmarked car. Then it was a short rough ride to the station, where I believe they may have thrown me down the stairs on the way to the cells, but I can’t be sure about that. Sleep deprivation does strange things to your short-term memory.
All I know is, I’ve acquired some strange psychological bruises that I can’t seem to account for, and a general feeling of having been thoroughly battered.
They read me my rights, of course. Told me that whatever verbs of utterance I dared to omit would be reinserted with a sharp red pen, and undoubtedly used against me in a court of law. They told me they suspected I was a serial comma killer and would be sentenced accordingly. They told me I was wildly inconsistent in every statement I’d made, that I had been caught for the heinous crime of wielding grammar in a manner likely to cause offence to gentlefolk, everywhere.
In mitigation, I asked for numerous flagrant misuses of restrictive which and non-restrictive that to be taken into account.
But after ten days of relentless interrogation, of having to recount my every move, justify why I took every shortcut, why I broke every rule, I came pretty close to breaking myself. I came within a hairsbreadth of saying, "OK! Enough! I give in. Put whatever you like in front of me and I’ll sign off on it." And when they sensed the weakness, I heard them sniggering at me from beyond the circle of the bright lights, in that superior way they have when they know that might is right, and right is on their side.
That’s the thing about the SemiColon Constabulary – they know all the tricks so much better than you do, and they’ll use them to rip the guts out of you. (Or should that be to rip out half your guts?) Then they fashion a noose, stand back and let you hang yourself.
And the worst thing is, by the time they’ve finished, you daren’t even leave a note.
All joking aside, as you can probably gather from the bitter, bitter tone, I’ve just been going through copyedits. And what fun it’s been. Not.
Don’t get me wrong – I like being edited. Factual goofs are factual goofs, whichever way you look at them, and I’m incredibly grateful to anyone who points them out before the book gets into print. It stops us all looking stupid. But what is proper punctuation? Why is it there at all? And when do the rules of the game become more important than the game itself? (Although, as these are largely rhetorical questions, I do realise that strictly speaking they shouldn’t be accompanied by a question mark.)
I know full well that I flout the rules on this score. No, that’s not true. It’s just that I use punctuation for what seems to me to be its oldest, truest purpose. To tell the reader when to pause, when to draw breath. If it’s a fast action scene with no pauses then don’t expect any commas either.
Writing my series in first person, I hear the rhythm of the words and phrases going through my main character’s head, and that’s how I write them down, unencumbered by the tight little corset of formal language and the equally stifling conventions of literary construction.
Charlie Fox might once have been a well brought up young lady, born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, but that selfsame spoon disappeared very promptly when she joined the British Army. Somebody probably pinched it. And if a spell among the rough and ready lads in Special Forces taught her to swear with the best of them, getting thrown out in disgrace taught her a whole new language altogether.
So her view of the world is cynical and weary, tinged with sorrow, fringed by her own humanity and the knowledge of how paper-thin is the veneer between civility and savagery, especially inside her own heart. She knows and accepts what she is, but that doesn’t mean she has to be ecstatic about it. Step over the line she’s drawn in the sand and she will kill you in a heartbeat, even if she’ll hate herself for it in the morning.
All these things are reflected not just in the way she talks, but the way she thinks, and thus in the entire narrative style of the books. Pared down, economical, a hint of the melancholy at times, but with a wry bleak humour that’s probably her saving grace. Attempt to formalise her patterns of speech or thought, and you deny not only who she is, but what experience has made her.
Now she’s living and working in New York – where the new book THIRD STRIKE opens – and this presents all kinds of new narrative challenges. I make the point in this one that she still finds it funny every time she walks into an elevator and sees that the name on the maker’s plate at the back is Schindler, but she recognises that her amusement is not shared by anybody who doesn’t think of an elevator as a lift …
So she’d no sooner say, "with whom" unless she was trying deliberately to annoy the person she was talking to (or even the person with whom she was speaking), than she would say or think "gotten" in any other context than with "ill-" in front of it and "gains" behind. Try to force too many Americanisms into her head and you change the fundamental identity of the character still further. Small wonder that I find myself ever so slightly miffed. And as for Charlie – well, she’d be fighting mad and heading for timber.
My question is, where do you all stand? Have you, also, been roughed up in the cells by the Punctuation Police, or do you silently applaud every time they put on the black cap and pass sentence on one of the guilty? What’s the silliest correction someone has tried to make to a piece of your writing? Is there anything up with which you will not put, to be punctilious about it. Please, tell me, if only to make me feel less thoroughly bracketed around the ears …
And as they lead me to the grammar gallows and offer me a final cigarette, I can only hope that someone will take pity on me and provide a last-minute reprieve. That I will be stetted, at the end.
So this week’s Word of the Week, therefore, is stet, meaning to restore after marking for deletion. From the Latin, third person singular present subjunctive of stare to stand; written on copyedits or proof sheets with dots under the words to be retained.
I’ve got to know this little word very well over the last ten days, having written it no less than one thousand two hundred and fifty-one times …
The pic shows the remains of several pencil erasers and the shavings from much sharpening of my official red pencil, which was considerably longer at the start of the copyedits than it was by the end.
I think I may have to get a rubber stamp made up …