Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Two on a Party" Problem: Punctuation

I had several difficulties in reading Tennessee Williams’ short story “Two on a Party” and the majority of them had to do with the author’s form. The dialogue was initially hard to follow because it was written as though we are taught dialogue should be only without the quotation marks. However, after a few pages, I got used to it and didn’t have to pause or reread those sections. However, the one thing that I never really was able to get used to was the punctuation or, more accurately, the lack thereof.

There were commas missing on countless occasions and plenty of run-on sentences to boot. Perhaps the best example is Page 53:

“Loneliness discovered any reserve and suspicion, the night was a great warm comfortable meeting of people, it shone, it radiated, it had the effect of a dozen big chandeliers, oh, it was great, it was grand, you simply couldn’t describe it, you got the colored lights going, and there it all was, the final pattern of it and the original pattern, all put together, made to fit exactly, no, there were simply no words good enough to describe it.”

I had to read this particular passage four whole times before I eventually said, “screw it” and moved on. It’s 69 words. It’s 10 different independent clauses separated by commas instead of periods or colons. And the cherry on top of this grammatically-incorrect sundae sprinkled with comma splices? There’s actually a comma missing between the words “warm” and “comfortable.” I realize that few works of literature adhere completely to the rules of grammar and that it is often chalked up to artistic expression. Yes, a writer is entitled to write however he or she feels is the best, most appropriate way to tell the story, but upon reading the passage above, the copy editor in me was dying.

I suppose that, in and of itself, is a rather personal problem. After editing newspapers through college and strictly adhering to Associated Press style since I was 21 (I’m 25 now), I find it hard to read things and not want to correct them. So rather than try and quell that now natural urge, I chose to embrace it.

I went back and put periods in the appropriate places in the sentence. Since it is merely pen marks on paper instead of the sentence being completely rewritten in text form, the revised passage is still a little tough to read. However, it certainly doesn’t have me pulling my hair out as it did before.

Here’s the passage rewritten with my corrections:

“Loneliness discovered any reserve and suspicion. The night was a great warm, comfortable meeting of people. It shone. It radiated. It had the effect of a dozen big chandeliers. Oh, it was great. It was grand. You simply couldn’t describe it. You got the colored lights going and there it all was: the final pattern of it and the original pattern, all put together, made to fit exactly. No, there were simply no words good enough to describe it.”

As I moved forward throughout the story, I continued to add and remove commas and periods as I saw fit. Again, it’s not the perfect system because I still had to pause in order to make the corrections and then pause again when I came upon them while rereading the piece, but it is still a vast improvement. It at least gives me the peace of mind of not looking at the story and thinking that some publishing editor just took the day off. I know, I know. It’s artistic expression and artistic expression is always up for interpretation. In fact, I used a comma between two independent clauses just two sentences ago. But when the artistic expression gets in the way of my ability to read a peace, especially one I have to get through for a class, I found it easiest to just tweak the original script to one that was more manageable. The final step would be to go back and rewrite the story with all of my corrections included, but since this is a PDF and I’m not capable of selecting and copy the text into a Word document, the hand-written corrections will have to do.

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