I am the first to acknowledge, often with no small amount of righteous indignation, that Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar checker often doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing. But recently, I’ve been having a fight with Word that is so perplexing to me that I’ve actually begun to doubt myself.
Below is a list of sentences from something I’m working on. Word tells me they’re all fragments, and politely suggests I consider revising them. They may not be perfect sentences, but none of them, as far as I can tell, is actually a fragment. At first I thought the problem was that I’m using made up names the dictionary doesn’t recognize as nouns, but I changed each instance of “Wyn” to “Jane” and that didn’t make any difference. I know I’m not the number one grammar guru in the world, but this has become a persistent issue in this document, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what the grammar checker is seeing that I’m not. Any thoughts?
Today I read:
If nothing else, one ought to know how to treat a comma. Abandonment or abuse of the comma muddles discourse, and this lack of respect is akin to neglect, to a lack of appreciation, to an unreasonable rejection of the very foundation of all worthy human interactions.
— Benjamin Samuel, “The Comma From Which My Heart Hangs“
I recently read a bit of Stephen King’s critique of the adverb, and while I take his point, also . . . no.
Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?
Yes, context should do some of the work that adverbs do. But while context may obviate the need for bad adverbs, it doesn’t invalidate their usefulness altogether. Adverbs do, as King says, express a degree of difference. They qualify, that’s what an adverb does. And who doesn’t want to be more precise?
But more importantly, what’s up with this obsession over economy? Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading about Gordon Lish’s editing of Raymond Carver this evening, but this mania for minimalism gets on my nerves. Why does the word have to be “extra”? In academic or professional prose, I can understand the emphasis placed on concision, but in literary writing? No. Why? Where’s the room for idiosyncrasy and surprise if we’re always pruning out the extraneous words? We don’t all need to be Ernest Hemingway. Certainly expressing the same sentiment in fewer words can be effective — constraints are generative, to be sure — but are those other words “extra”? Are they dead weight? Are they bad? I can’t bring myself to believe that.
Someday I will write a love letter to the comma. I’ve been thinking a lot about commas in recent months and I just absolutely love them. Someday I will sing their praises from the rooftops.
Come to think of it, maybe what I actually love is punctuation, period. (I was going to say “no pun intended” but on second thought I don’t care if anyone thinks I planned that.) I just really love punctuation, especially when it’s “ostentatious.”
Yeah, you heard me. What of it?