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Sunday, June 5, 2011

part two, punctuation as word(s)




so in an earlier post, i drew attention to the art of using punctuation to stand in for actual words. this post is similarly positioned, though with one notable exception: rather than looking at a winning example of this technique, we will look at an attempt that feels decidedly less successful. yeah, but why spend time looking at flawed writing? because understanding why certain things in writing don't work can be just as edifying as understanding why certain things in writing do work.

to wit: The New Yorker's News Desk just recently published an online piece about an incredible time-lapse video of manhattan. let's look at the word choice and punctuation in the third sentence (emphasis mine).

"More than fifty thousand time-lapse videos have been posted to Vimeo, the online art house to YouTube’s multiplex, and many of them are beautiful. But on Tuesday evening, Josh Owens posted one that struck us as more ambitious and impressive than most. Maybe it’s because much of it was shot from hotel windows in Times Square, where we have our offices: at ground level, in real time, it can be a dispiriting neighborhood, but Owens reminded us that it’s also a glorious one, at least when it’s sped up around seven hundred and twenty times. (The interval between frames as Owens shot them was anywhere from five seconds to a full minute.)"

so what words (or connection) is the writer trying to convey with the colon use? one way find out is by mentally removing the colon and then asking yourself what words you would employ to make the relationship clear between the two independent clauses. give it a go.

okay, what words did you insert? let me guess, you couldn't do it? and that's fine, because it can't really be done. there is no "natural" segue that our minds mentally insert in order to bridge the idea directly before the colon to the idea immediately after it. and when that's the case, the colon is helpless. yes, the colon is an extremely pliant punctuation mark, but the above example mishandles the usage. it requires too much of a leap. and thus the direction--that is, the forward propulsion of the sentence--gets dropped. and it doesn't get picked back up again until it's too late. and that's the take-home lesson here: professional writers are expert idea threaders. they weave words,* and the result is what we call Flow.

so without spending more than five seconds thinking about this, here is how i would fix the situation. you decide which one has more flow; and flow, after all, is the only reason to examine this sort of minutia in such detail.

original:

"Maybe it’s because much of it was shot from hotel windows in Times Square, where we have our offices: at ground level, in real time, it can be a dispiriting neighborhood, but Owens reminded us that it’s also a glorious one, at least when it’s sped up around seven hundred and twenty times.

mine:

"Maybe it’s because much of it was shot from hotel windows in Times Square, where we have our offices. This neighborhood, experienced at ground level and in real time, can be particularly dispiriting, yet Owens reminded us that it’s also a glorious tableau, at least when sped up around seven hundred and twenty times.

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*re: the importance of threading and weaving one's words, look up the etymology of "text" next time your bored.

Video: Manhattan Accelerando

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