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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2008-11-30 21:33
Subject: [writing] Herman Melville’s friend, the humble comma
Security: Public
Tags:books, funny, language, writing

Whilst reading The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, by Herman Melville, I continue to marvel at the shifts in literary style over time. Consider this sentence:

While the merchant, strange to say, opposed views so calm and impartial, and again, with some warmth, deplored the case of the unfortunate man, his companion, not without seriousness, checked him, saying, that this would never do; that, though but in the most exceptional case, to admit the existence of unmerited misery, more particularly if alleged to have been brought about by unhindered arts of the wicked, such an admission was, to say the least, not prudent; since, with some, it might unfavorably bias their most important persuasions

I have several observations here.

First of all, this is a typical sentence for Melville, at least in this book.

Second, I have probably written entire novel chapters with fewer commas than this single sentence. One imagines a mid-nineteenth century fire sale on punctuation. Try reading the damned thing aloud.

Third, if I turned a sentence like that it to Tor, editorial ninjas would come to my house and choke me to death with my own copy edit. To general approbation and good cheer, I should think.

Nonetheless, I soldier bravely onward, for like all fiction, ’tis not the bottle but the contents which makes the play.

Originally published at jlake.com. You can comment here or there.

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Darja
User: ombriel
Date: 2008-12-01 04:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
While it wasn't quite that bad, attempts to read Henry James' The Turn of the Screw out loud ended in failure for similar dense-sentence-related reasons.
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User: creed_of_hubris
Date: 2008-12-01 04:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You really don't need to look too much further than Melville's title pages to see what you're in for.

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

I think 2/3 of the punctuation would be stripped out these days.

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Rose Fox
User: rosefox
Date: 2008-12-01 04:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Melville needed a LISP parser, or pre-diagrammed sentences.

"While the merchant (strange to say) opposed views ((so) calm and impartial) and (again) (with some warmth) deplored the case (of the unfortunate man) his companion ((not) without seriousness) checked him (saying (that this would never do), (that ((though) (but) in the (most) exceptional case) to admit the existence of (unmerited) misery (more particularly if alleged to have been brought about by (unhindered) arts (of the wicked)) such an admission was (to say the least) not prudent (since (with some) it might (unfavorably) bias their (most important) persuasions)))."

This one is particularly tricky because of the redundant "to admit... such an admission".

Edited at 2008-12-01 04:53 am (UTC)
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Jay Lake: funny-buddahomer
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-12-01 04:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:funny-buddahomer
:: lmao ::
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Rose Fox
User: rosefox
Date: 2008-12-01 06:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Now that I think about it, it probably looks perfectly reasonable when translated into German.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Rose Fox
User: rosefox
Date: 2008-12-01 14:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Happy to help!
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gvdub
User: gvdub
Date: 2008-12-01 04:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

Why if all you kids today hadn't fried your attention spans down around a femtosecond, you'd be able to read far more complex sentences than that. That language should, so suddenly, be constricted to the brevity that, without consideration, strips all the beauty from the word and makes a mockery of that glorious ability to lead your reader down a winding path, pausing to smell the flowers along the way, whilst pointing out the various sights to be appreciated and savored, that would be so easily missed at a greater pace, before presenting the dear souls at the end of a thought upon which they might ruminate, having enjoyed the voyage and found an exaltation of the soul to lift them from their daily cares.
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Ted: Recon Scribe: smile
User: tedrick_james
Date: 2008-12-01 10:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:smile
I grew up with Bukowski: "Sometimes you just have to pee in the sink."
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Autopope
User: autopope
Date: 2008-12-01 10:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Doubleplusungood oldspeak backsliding, citizen!
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-12-01 12:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Snarf!
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aries_jordan: Celestina
User: aries_jordan
Date: 2008-12-01 16:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Celestina
I understood your sentence, but I still have no idea what Melville said.
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Peter Hollo
User: frogworth
Date: 2008-12-01 05:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I find philosophy from previous centuries rather hard to read because of punctuation - Locke, in particular, is really difficult to parse. Bastards :/
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2008-12-01 05:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:lion cub
*hearts the humble comma -- but not that much*
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Ted: Recon Scribe: dexter
User: tedrick_james
Date: 2008-12-01 10:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:dexter
Try reading the damned thing aloud.
You know, perhaps he spoke it before writing it out, and... had some sort of severe breath control problem? Needed a lot of pauses so he wouldn't pass out?
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-12-01 13:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The bog mindles...

(One wonders how a book with that financial performance could stay in print 50 years.)
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2008-12-01 13:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It was a different era.
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writertracy
User: writertracy
Date: 2008-12-01 22:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Because it gives high school English Teachers something to do, other than making us all read Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.

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scottedelman: peanuts
User: scottedelman
Date: 2008-12-01 15:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:peanuts
As a fan of Barry Malzberg's sometimes seemingly endless sentences, I don't find this as off-putting as you do.
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writertracy
User: writertracy
Date: 2008-12-01 22:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't even use that many commas. And I have been accused of turning in work that looks like I loaded a shotgun full of punctuation and firing it onto a page.

I feel better now.
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User: mmegaera
Date: 2008-12-01 23:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:reading
Frankly, I don't expect much of anything from the man who wrote the most singularly obnoxious character in all of literature.

Bartleby the Scrivener should have been shot on page one. In the kneecaps.

A fire sale on punctuation. I love it.
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