Thursday, July 25, 2019

Revisiting the Comma Splice

One of the difficulties as an editor, particularly when working with fiction, is to know when to be a stickler for the rules. For some people this is not an issue: rules are rules, and that's the end of the matter. Some of us, however, acknowledge that grammar does not have rules in the same sense that mathematics has rules. If you break the rules in mathematics, what you are trying to achieve won't work. However, if you break the rules in grammar, your meaning is often still clear. Furthermore, the 'rules' in grammar clearly change over time. Rather I should say that the conventions change. The rules of grammar are less rules than guidelines and conventions for the facilitation of communication.

At times, particularly when there is ambiguity, the rules are vital. At other times, less so.

Which brings us to the issue of the comma splice. This is when two independent clauses are connected by a comma only. Sometimes this is referred to as a run-on sentence, but the latter is probably better understood as two (or more) independent clauses linked by no punctuation. An example of a comma splice is this:

There was a prim little worktable with a gathered sack underneath of puce silk, there was a rosewood bureau and a mahogany sofa table.

The strict grammarian will want to correct this to:

There was a prim little worktable with a gathered sack underneath of puce silk. There was a rosewood bureau and a mahogany sofa table.


There was a prim little worktable with a gathered sack underneath of puce silk, and there was a rosewood bureau and a mahogany sofa table.


There was a prim little worktable with a gathered sack underneath of puce silk; there was a rosewood bureau and a mahogany sofa table.

Here is another example:

Brodie’s disapproval of the Girl Guides had jealousy in it, there was an inconsistency, a fault.

Brodie’s disapproval of the Girl Guides had jealousy in it. There was an inconsistency, a fault.

The first example is Agatha Christie. The second from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark.

It turns out, in fact, that comma splices are very common in literature from all eras. Stan Carey in his blog on the topic ( began collecting just 1-3 examples from each book he read and had soon accumulated more than 10,000 words!

So when an 'error' becomes this widespread, can it still be regarded as an error? Does it not become accepted usage? It's not even new. Examples will be found in almost any nineteenth century novel. Even the stricter grammarians will acknowledge that linking short independent clauses with just a comma is acceptable: 'It wasn't cold, it was quite hot.'

The challenge as an editor is: Do I correct these comma splices? If I correct one, do I correct them all? Is the writer doing this intentionally? If so, what effect are they trying to achieve? Is it working? Or does the writer simply not realise they are doing it?

My tendency is still to correct these as I think that, most often, these splices are unintentional, but I may be wrong.

My advice to writers, as with all such rule-breaking, is this: If you are going to use the comma splice, first be aware that you are doing it. Then be clear about your reasons for doing so. And, if it's really important to you, perhaps give your editor a heads-up.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Gratitude, therefore God?

I recently saw a video where a prominent TV personality was interviewing another TV personality who is a self-proclaimed atheist. The interviewer explained that he looked at the wonder of the world around him and experienced a sense of gratitude, and that he needed someone to express that gratitude to, i.e., God. I don't think the atheist's response to this was particularly insightful, but here is what I would say about that response of 'gratitude'.

Our spontaneous feelings are not always an appropriate response to the world around us. They need to be tempered by reason. For example, even adults can sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and experience a sense of terror at the darkness around them. This feeling is very real and difficult to shake off, but it is not appropriate. Reason needs to step in, turn on the light, and demonstrate that there is actually nothing to be afraid of. I don't think anyone can deny (particularly these days) that people frequently and easily become very angry. However, this response is often anything but appropriate, and certainly not reasonable, and, again, reason, rationality, needs to step in and take control. Our emotional responses to the world and events around us are, while perfectly genuine, not always appropriate and can have very dangerous real-world consequences.

I understand the response of gratitude to the wonders of the world around us. However, just as, when we wake up in terror during the night, there is usually nothing and no one to be afraid of, so too when we feel this sense of 'gratitude', I would argue that there is no one to actually be grateful to. In fact, I would say that what I feel is a sense of wonder, perhaps even a sense of happiness and joy, rather than gratitude.

Interpreting and constructing our view of reality on the basis of what we happen to feel at a particular moment is fraught with danger. Take a moment and let reason have its say.

The other point to make is that our sense of 'gratitude' is based on a highly filtered view of the world. Take a closer look and there will be plenty to be somewhat less than grateful for. Are the victims of an earthquake or a tsunami or an epidemic filled with gratitude at the wonder of the world? Should they be? They are more likely to be filled with anger at 'God', which is no more appropriate. I may be angry in such a situation, but there is no one to be actually angry towards. (So we often direct that anger towards earthly agencies that  we feel didn't do enough to prevent or respond to the situation.)

Feelings are real, but they are often misdirected. Feel 'gratitude' because of the beauty of the world, and before long we have a multitude of organised religions. Reason is far from perfect, but give it a chance. Irrationality has governed humanity for many millenia, and often still does. Rationality has had much less time to operate among us, and it is up against a powerful adversary. An adversary that is clearly fighting back today.

Don't deny your feelings, but don't be hasty about constructing your world view upon their foundation.

Monday, December 10, 2018

My Take on Doctor Who

I have been a Doctor Who fan since its inception in 1963. Even more so of its modern incarnation, beginning with Christopher Eccleston. Of course there have been ups and downs: classical, memorable story lines and utter clangers. So what do I make of the new series, featuring Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who?

I was really looking forward to a female Doctor. What a great opportunity to develop the character of the Doctor in new and interesting ways! I had watched Jodie Whittaker in Broadchurch and she seemed a competent actor. I thought the role of the Doctor might be a great opportunity for her.

So ... what went wrong?

Pretty much everything, I think.

The story lines have been generally weak. Even in the better stories (e.g. the Rosa Parks story) they have been rather un-Doctor Who-ish. They have not been linked together by any overall story arc. Yeah, sure, the baddy from episode one turns up again in the final episode, but that was in no way organic. It could have been any baddy and made little or no difference. Where were the intriguing clues and hints at mystery (as in 'Bad Wolf', or the re-appearances of versions of 'Clara')? 

And who are these people? Why are they travelling together? Are they just on a road trip together? What of their off-Tardis lives? The companions don't seem to have any real relationship with the Doctor. She's just the bus driver and tour guide. Why these people? Mostly they stand around looking silly, waiting for their next instruction from the Doctor (or their next line).

I think it was a mistake to immediately burden the Doctor with three companions. It meant that Jodie had less time and script to develop her character. The result is that none of them really have a chance to develop their characters, because there is no focus on one or two characters and their relationships to each other. And the companions are not, really, very interesting. At the end of the season, I still scarcely know their names.

And has the new team decided to cut all ties with the entire history of Doctor Who? Will there be no recurrence of past characters/villains? No working out of consequences from earlier story lines? If that's the case, in what sense is this really Doctor Who at all?

And what of the Doctor? Well, the writers seems to have gone out of their way to make Jodie as gender neutral as possible, perhaps to avoid offending anyone. I would have liked to see a female Doctor with, well -- at the risk of being pilloried -- more femininity. Picture, in the first episode, the Doctor in a skirt and stilletoes, climbing a huge gantry. I think moments of great humour and surprise have been squandered by playing down the Doctor's femininity. 

This has been the first series of Doctor Who when I actually turned off an episode half way through because I thought it was unwatchable (the 'witches' episode). It seems there will another series -- or, really, the second half of this series. But can the franchise survive beyond that? Without a serious shake-up, I doubt it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

A question to Amazon

As well as an editor, I am an independent author in Australia, and I have been using Amazon KDP (and previously Createspace) to publish my paperback books for some years. I have also assisted other Australian authors to do so. Since 1 July 2018, changes to Australian law regarding GST have led Amazon to make the decision to no longer ship proof copies and author copies to Australia. Instead, I, as an author, am directed to buy print copies from the retail page. This means paying (for instance) AU$18.33 plus shipping for a copy of my own book, rather than US$3.68 plus shipping as it would have been. This is a HUGE cost increase and makes purchasing copies for resale locally no longer viable.

I would love to hear from other authors, particularly in Australia, but elsewhere too if a similar situation pertains.

Amazon is a large, technologically advanced company, and my question to them is: When will Amazon resume shipments of proofs and author copies to Australia, including handling of the required GST payment?

Friday, June 8, 2018

Loving Our Leaders?

'Loving our leaders' is not a condition with which we are much afflicted in Australia. For the most part, they are regarded somewhere below used-car salespersons and paedophiles.

We might aspire to admiring our leaders, or respecting our leaders - should they earn such admiration and respect. But 'loving' them? I don't think so.

No matter how worthy of respect and admiration a leader might be, loving them seems an inappropriate response. Somewhat sycophantic. Somewhat blind. We are told, after all, that love is blind. Love or devotion to a leader strikes me as a kind of secular idolatry. Sometimes not so secular. The kind of language that some people use with respect to their political leader(s) borders disturbingly on religious fervour, which is not something I admire even when directed towards a divine being, let alone an earthly one.

However inspiring our leaders might be (we wish!) 'loving' them strikes me as a kind of pathology. Sure, love them, if, you know, you love everyone - yada yada yada. Love them in the abstract, if you wish, as you might love humanity - yada yada yada. But singling them out for some special kind of devotion? Spare me!

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Perils of Pluto

I am a regular quizzer. I love answering questions. I know it's sad, but I get a kick out of knowing something really obscure that few others know. I'll take my thrills where I can get them.

This is a note to quizzers about that pesky solar system object known as ‘Pluto’. Planets come up quite often in quizzes, and there is frequently a discussion about Pluto—planet? dwarf planet? orbiting canine? In 2006 Pluto was demoted to the status of dwarf planet. However, many of us have the notion—but originating where?—that Pluto has been recently reinstated to full planetary status … perhaps on the basis of good behaviour? Actually, the idea that Pluto was reinstated arose because of an APRIL FOOLS day story that came out in 2017, claiming that Pluto had been re-planeted. In fact, it’s still regarded as a dwarf planet—or perhaps we should say ‘planet of small stature’? For those concerned about how this demotion has affected Pluto’s psychological wellbeing, you will be pleased to know that there is a group of astronomers trying to change the definition of planet so that it basically means: sub-stellar object of roughly spherical shape. If this definition is accepted, Pluto will once again join the ranks of the planets. Unfortunately, so would 102 other bodies in the solar system. Good luck remembering all their names, quizzers!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

New Release!

My new novel, The Woman by the Urn, will be released on 21 June 2018. You can pre-order the Kindle version here.

A young boy in Glasgow.
A young man at theological college.
An aging painter.

Sean Burnett is all of these, viewed through his own eyes and those of the people closest to him. 'Are our lives a single thread,' he asks, 'flowing smoothly from one instant to the next? Or are they composed of a series of discrete temporal packages? Digital lives, rather than analog lives.'

This painting, 'The Woman by the Urn', will be his last great project. Will family tragedy intervene to prevent its completion? Will Sean live long enough to finish the painting. Can a painting ever really be finished? Can a life ever really be completed?