(HOW ODD.)

An opinion piece by Jane Gardam in today’s NY Times is pretty badly written, in my view (one paragraph begins “A single glove. The glove of a king. A 14th-century king. Chaucer’s king”), but that (sadly) is not particularly surprising. What astonished me was the following sentence, about Richard II’s glove:

The scrap of glove (How odd to wear gloves in your coffin. One wonders if everyone did.) was pushed into the cigarette box and has lain beneath the pavement round St. Martin in the Fields for all these years.

One can cram all sorts of things into parentheses, and I often do (as witness the first one above), but this immediately struck me as being beyond the pale; it consists of two extraneous sentences tossed in, and both the initial capital and the final period seem… not even wrong, I believe the phrase goes. (I myself, if I were to keep the wording, would punctuate it “The scrap of glove—how odd to wear gloves in your coffin; one wonders if everyone did—was pushed into the cigarette box.”) But, as always, I suspect myself of fuddy-duddyism and/or parochialism, so I ask the Varied Reader: does this sort of parenthesis seem acceptable to you? And are you aware of other published examples? It’s not the sort of thing you can easily google for.

Comments

  1. This feels at least logical to me, and perfectly clear. I would identify it as slightly unorthodox, but not at all unacceptable.

  2. It irritates me quite a bit. But then I’m a fuddy-duddy at heart.

  3. I have a tendency towards parenthetical statements. In speech this can be semi-acceptable (though often parenthetical statement A will lead to parenthetical statement B, and so on, and I may never get back to close off the initial thought [which must be highly frustrating when conversing with me]), but I try my best to restrain myself when writing, especially in more formal contexts. If I cannot rephrase the thought as a nearby sentence, and it absolutely must be expressed, I will move it to a footnote.
    I tend to punctuate such interruptions similarly to full sentences if they are complete clauses, but that may be due to my own fuddy-duddy tendency towards formal punctuation in even the least formal contexts (including texts—thanks, BlackBerry!).

  4. Not really much of a fuddy-duddy, but as someone who abuses parentheticals like it’s my job, I dislike this pretty intensely. I’m not sure the semicolon really solves the problem, though, since I think of the semicolon as having a higher “level” than the dash (which makes the sentence look like it’s two separate clauses with weird dashes in them). (Incidentally, would it be better to say “as someone who abuses parentheticals like it’s his job”? I’ve never been sure.)

  5. It seems odd to me too. I think it chops up the sentence too much to have whole sentences stuck in parentheses like that. I prefer your edit, but I think the parentheses could still work if it were lowercased and punctuated the way you did—no periods, with just a semicolon in between.

  6. In informal writing, it’s a construction I’ve never seen before, and one which also strikes me as “not even wrong.” In formal writing, I avoid parenthetical asides altogether, for the same reason I avoid clauses placed so as to require unnecessary commas: it breaks the rhythm of the writing.
    Preferable would be: “The scrap of glove was pushed into the cigarette box and has lain beneath the pavement round St. Martin in the Fields for all these years. How odd to wear gloves in your coffin; one wonders if everyone did.”
    It’s obvious the author is writing in the “transcription of a friendly lecture” style that is not my preference.

  7. It’s a egregious example of poor writing and even poorer editing. One wonders if tossing in a snotty phrase like “one wonders” was thought to offset such shoddy work.

  8. I have a bad parenthesis problem myself and I often run up against this issue. Usually when I find myself agonizing over where and how to punctuate a parenthetical aside I take it as a sign that I should reword the thing. If it were me I’d give it its own paragraph, to set it off more clearly as a whimsical aside and keep the main story cleaner:
    “The glove was not accidentally dropped by King Richard on his way to Westminster Abbey. It was looted out of his royal coffin in Victorian times, when grave-robbery was not condemned so seriously by archaeologists as it might be now.
    (How odd to wear gloves in your coffin. One wonders if everyone did.)
    The scrap of glove was pushed into the cigarette box and has lain beneath the pavement round St. Martin in the Fields for all these years. That’s to say, in the very bowels of the city….”
    Although to be honest I’m not sure it belongs in there at all. It doesn’t seem all that surprising to find gloves on the hands of a corpse interred when formal wear included gloves.

  9. I’m shocked that criticism of this stylised, really shitty writing is thought of as fuddy-duddy. Thank God no one says “provincial”. So if this is a sign that I’m a ridiculous figure left over from the last century it can’t be helped; rubbish is rubbish.
    As always, Language has punctuated it in the way that makes it easiest to understand. How can anyone that good remain so humble?

  10. Although to be honest I’m not sure it belongs in there at all.
    Yes, that’s the other problem: the piece is egregiously padded. One wonders if the author was being paid by the word.

  11. How can anyone that good remain so humble?
    If one strives for perfection, one must manifest all the virtues.

  12. The daughters of Adam and the sons of Eve are not in the perfection business, but as one who gave me a good character while refraining from saying I could not swim (I swim pretty durn well, actually, though I’ve had little chance to in recent years), Steve comes close enough. Nevertheless I must disagree with his proposed edit.
    Changing parentheses to dashes converts a de-emphasized digression into an emphasized one. (“Parentheses minimize, dashes emphasize, commas merely enclose.”) As such, it alters the author’s intention in an illegitimate way. It seems to me that less damage is done if the two parenthesized sentences are merged with a semicolon or colon, in which case the capitals and terminal punctuation can be safely dropped. (Matt’s repair is also a resonable approach, where one can afford to be more heavy-handed.)
    People always talk about being paid by the word as if it were a joke, but am I wrong to think that periodicals pay contributors (when they do pay them, and excluding commissioned articles) proportionately to the length of the article? If so, how does that differ from payment by the word? And if not, am I merely a fuddy-duddy too?

  13. Oh, the author was definitely being paid by the word, as are most authors. My joke was a subtle stylistic one focused on the “one wonders.” There are authors who can write 800 words neatly and compendiously, and there are authors who write 400 words and pad to fill.

  14. It’s always difficult to mark up metatext. The house style probably didn’t allow <aside>s, <small>s, <ruby> or footnotes. “Put details and digressions in footnotes. Then delete the footnotes.” (Greg Mankiw)

  15. I often punctuate parenthetical statements, but only if the punctuation is either a question mark or an exclamation mark…and even then I find it awkward.

  16. Somewhat off-topic, there’s the issue of a sentence-ending parenthesis, which should be followed by punctuation:

    I shook his left hand (he had a cast on his right).
    Where’s the umbrella (if you still have it)?
    Eat my shorts (if you want to)!

    This strikes me as awkward, and a sure sign that there’s a better way to phrase the whole thing. Sometimes upon further editing, I find myself with a free-floating parenthetical statement, and am faced with the decision of whether to “upgrade” it to a sentence. Somehow its digressive nature makes this feel inappropriate.

  17. Yes, BUT. Yes, it was an odd piece, half-baked, and the period inside the parens is something I always thought was wrong (though one does see it these days). But may I just say that however insubstantial this offering — and who knows how it found its way to the Times (as a journalist, I have some ideas) — Jane Gardam is a wonderful, wonderful novelist, now in her 80s and finally getting some ink in the US. In fact, Hat, I was just thinking of you as I read her “God on the Rocks” last week, wondering if you might like it as part of your bedtime reading program. Please don’t let this episode keep you from sampling her real work.

  18. Periods inside of parentheses is often something I’ve found myself wanting to do; I’m fairly certain I’ve never been able to bring myself to leave it in the final draft.

  19. I think it’s annoying because it’s bad writing: the author had a thought — several thoughts — that didn’t fit in the flow of the piece, but couldn’t bear to leave them out. It seems designed to draw attention to how clever she is. “See how thoughtful I am? Even my asides are pithy.”
    I apologize if she is a terrific novelist. But then, even terrific novelists can write bad oped pieces (and often need an editor to red pencil their prose).

  20. The sentence looks strange to me too. I don’t recall having seen anything like it before. I would prefer:
    The scrap of glove (how odd to wear gloves in your coffin; one wonders if everyone did) was pushed into the cigarette box and has lain beneath the pavement round St. Martin in the Fields for all these years.
    but what do I know?
    Is there no advice about this in the Chicago Manual of Style, for example?
    @xyzzyva: Eat my shorts (if you want to)! vs Eat my shorts (if you want to!).
    Does everyone else follow my practice of making a distinction between these forms? To me, the first places the emphasis on Eat my shorts since if the phrase in parentheses is omitted the “!” remains, while in the second, the emphasis is only on the parenthesised phrase, while the main sentence is neutral, ending in a period.

  21. Yes, Iching. If I had to keep the same words in the same order, I would punctuate it as you do. Or as LH does. Either is accepted (sc. both are accepted) by major style manuals.
    Generally accepted principles concerning “orthographic sentences” and parentheses, condensing the consensus of style manuals:
    P1. A sentence beginning outside a set of parentheses must end outside those parentheses, even if this is only a matter of placement of terminal punctuation:

    He was at home (or at least, he seemed to be).

    P2. A sentence beginning inside parentheses must end inside those same parentheses.

    He was at home (he was always at home on Tuesday afternoons), but was he alone?

    P3. A sentence, or sentences, entirely within parentheses must be capped at the start and have terminal punctuation, only if those parentheses are not themselves within a sentence:

    He was at home. (Wasn’t he always at home on Tuesday afternoons? So she seemed to remember.) But he would soon be going out.

    P4. Otherwise such sentences are not capped (see example for P2), and may only have a question mark or exclamation mark as terminal punctuation, never a period; often a semicolon is used instead of terminal punctuation, between such “sentences”:

    The scrap of glove (how odd to wear gloves in your coffin; one wonders if everyone did) was pushed into the cigarette box.

    Or even (though some would not like this exclamation mark), with different words:

    The scrap of glove (how odd to wear gloves in your coffin! does everyone do that?) was pushed into the cigarette box.

    There are some provisos to add when we consider ellipses (…). But I leave those aside.
    A word about rewording. Very often people respond to puzzles like the one posed in LH’s post by saying “O, I’d reword that!” Well, that is usually an evasion of an interesting problem from which we can learn something. Besides, rewording is not always available. The task may be, for example, to present in written text what we have heard spoken.
     

  22. Agree with LH’s solution, though would retain comma instead of semi-colon to retain stream-of-consciousness effect. Also irritating is the use of both “your” and “one’s” for the indefinite pronoun.

  23. Sorry, “use”, not “retain”.

  24. “The scrap of glove—how odd to wear gloves in your coffin; one wonders if everyone did—was pushed into the cigarette box.”
    Perhaps she did originally punctuate as you suggest, and then it was edited by Jane Austen

  25. Jan Freeman: who knows how it found its way to the Times (as a journalist, I have some ideas) — Jane Gardam is a wonderful, wonderful novelist
    It’s so hard to see a wonderful novelist using these phrases:
    the basement archive of the National Portrait Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square.
    In London’s Trafalgar Square?
    the National Portrait Gallery restaurant, where you can push along a plastic tray to put your lunch upon.
    To put your lunch upon?
    The Richard II news is more 14th-century, and it is that the fragment of what was almost certainly a glove belonging to that controversial king
    There is no controversy about Richard II.

  26. the National Portrait Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square
    Crown, I remember seeing Nelson’s Column from the entrance to the NPG. The london.gov website gives the address of the NPG as Trafalgar Square. The German WiPe says the NPG is on St. Martin’s Place.
    Or is this about “on the square” being standard usage, and “in the square” nonstandard ?

  27. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    The “One” bothers me more than the parenthesis does. As the author is clearly the person doing the wondering, why doesn’t she use “I”? In second place I’d put the full stop inside the parenthesis. Only with those fixed would I start worrying about the parenthesis itself.

  28. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    In London’s Trafalgar Square?
    This seems to me to mix two dialects: AmE often uses possessives like “London’s” where BrE prefers a prepositional phrase at the end; BrE uses “in” with locations like streets and squares where AmE would use “on”. So it seems to me that
    “On London’s Trafalgar Square” would be OK in AmE, though I confess it would sound pretty odd to me: is “London’s” generally accepted in AmE or is it characteristic of journalism?
    “In Trafalgar Square, in London” would be OK in BrE, though a bit unnecessary, as virtually all BrE speakers know where Trafalgar Square is.

  29. is “London’s” generally accepted in AmE or is it characteristic of journalism?
    That kind of casual add-in may be characteristic of AmE, but I personally don’t like it. I do somehow regard it as “journalese”.

  30. In fact, Hat, I was just thinking of you as I read her “God on the Rocks” last week, wondering if you might like it as part of your bedtime reading program. Please don’t let this episode keep you from sampling her real work.
    OK, I respect your judgment enough to withhold mine. But, like AJP, I find it odd that a good writer is responsible for such sloppy work. Perhaps she’s not feeling well and needs a salad (see next post). I also agree with AJP about the “controversial king”: what controversy? Is she thinking of Richard III?

  31. Stu, the NPG faces onto Trafalgar Square, but the entry is in St. Martin’s Place, so everyone’s right. As to “on the square”, I refer you to Athel C-B. “On” is American, but there was a very expensive restaurant that opened in Park Lane in the mid-1960s called “Inn On The Park”, so the usage is pretty old by now. I noticed recently that everyone in London says “on” X Street; I’m the only one left who says “in”.

  32. Lerner and Loewe may have accelerated the contamination of BrE with the song “On the Street Where You Live”. By the way, when the question arises of the “pavement” staying beneath Freddy’s feet, I have never been sure if that’s the sidewalk or the roadway.

  33. I expect it depends whether Freddy’s a person or the Scottish horse who’s tired of life.

  34. Athel:
    In second place I’d put the full stop inside the parenthesis.
    Which full stop? Aren’t there already two full stops in there? Do you mean you would be happy for them to stay there, despite the fact that the enclosing sentence also ends with a full stop?
    Of course we run into the problem of parenthesis and parentheses. Calling each of the two marks parenthesis is well established, though calling the pair or what they enclose parenthesis is older. SOED:

    2 (Inclusion of words within) a pair of round brackets. L16.
    b Either of a pair of (esp. round) brackets used to include words inserted parenthetically (usu. in pl.). E18.
    c Logic & Computing. A left-hand or right-hand bracket, esp. used in pairs to disambiguate a complex expression by grouping the symbols occurring within the scope of an operator. E20.

    In British and Commonwealth, even often in technical usage, we do call those marks brackets – or round brackets, to distinguish them from square brackets. Americans seldom do that, I think.
    As the author is clearly the person doing the wondering, why doesn’t she use “I”?
    A stylistic choice that handily generalises from a particular instances of wondering to a more universal musing. Harmless enough. Doesn’t earn a blanket condemnation.

  35. = from a particular instance
    Hatters, whether for love or friendship please make adjustments for my frowardness.

  36. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Noetica:
    Athel:
    In second place I’d put the full stop inside the parenthesis.
    Which full stop? Aren’t there already two full stops in there? Do you mean you would be happy for them to stay there, despite the fact that the enclosing sentence also ends with a full stop?
    No I didn’t mean that, but I didn’t make myself clear. “In second place” referred to second place in the list of what I disliked about the quotation, i.e. after the “One” and before the putting two sentences in parentheses. I wasn’t worrying about disagreements about the order of punctuation marks, which, as you point out, don’t apply here anyway.

  37. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I’m the only one left who says “in”.
    If I were in London at this moment there’d be two of us. But I fear we’re both getting old. One of the things about living abroad, as we both, I think, do, is that we fail to keep up with the evolution of the language.

  38. Yes. It can be a peculiar, Robinson Crusoe feeling and a momento mori. But, at the same time, interesting.

  39. This discussion reminds me of one on Language Log two years ago, on the (alleged) differences between salaries “rising” and “increasing.” (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=214)
    It reminds me especially of Hat’s wonderful comment on that post:
    “I don’t know why this has never occurred to me before, but this discussion has made me realize that a mischievous person could pick any construction at random and denounce it just for the fun of watching the opprobrium spread across the prescriptivist world, or take two perfectly good English sentences and state authoritatively that one was correct and the other not and watch people fall all over themselves to provide justifications for the judgment. If you say one person or idea is better than another most people will form their own judgment and either argue or agree with you, but when it comes to grammar (or ‘grammar’), it seems there’s a vast public eager to appropriate any proscription that comes within their ken, whether it makes sense or not. To err is human, to want to feel superior to other people’s supposed errors is even more so.”
    I don’t think the piece under discussion is actually worse than the average NYT freelance op-ed (see Bono, a repeat offender, if you can bear it); the punctuation bit was the only thing that gave me pause as a reader. Of course, if I look with an editor’s critical eye, I can find other things to improve. I’m assuming Hat was not mischievously testing his theory here … but what if he had been?

  40. Ah, what indeed?

  41. On the topic of fuddy-duddyism, have you seen the Stephen Fry video on language linked at http://danpritch.blogspot.com/2010/11/on-cleaning-up-woulds-and-shoulds-etc.html

  42. Patrick Daughters says:

    The paragraph-beginning fragments remind me of Clerks, where Randall is playing with a tortilla chip and a jar of salsa:
    Man goes into cage. Cage goes into salsa. Shark’s in the salsa. Our shark.

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