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Here’s An Example of Commas Gone Wild

Y’all know I’m big on opening sentences. The first page, the first chapter, of a novel really sets the tone.

So, when I came across this doozy at the beginning of Housekeeping, I must admit that my eyes started to cross.

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher. Through all these generations of elders we lived in one house, my grandmother’s house, built for her by her husband, Edmund Foster, an employee of the railroad, who escaped this world years before I entered it.

And a couple of sentences later…

He had grown up in the Middle West, in a house dug out of the ground, with windows just at earth level and just at eye level, so that from without, the house was a mere mound, no more a human stronghold than a grave, and from within, the perfect horizontality of the world in that place foreshortened the view so severely that the horizon seemed to circumscribe the sod house and nothing more.

What are your first thoughts on those sentences?

I’ll tell you mine: Choppy. Choppy. Choppy.

I probably spent 5 minutes on the opening page. While, sure, the sentence is grammatically correct, it’s almost painful to read. Hemingway would’ve had a stroke reading that. Some might see a rhythm in that passage, but I can’t.

The way I see it, overusing the parenthetical comma is an addiction. The writer sees no problem with their use. It all makes sense.

It’s the reader, with fresh eyes from the outside, who looks at a sentence like that and goes, “Wha…?” I feel like I’m on a sailboat in a storm while reading that passage.

In Marilynne Robinson’s defense, the opening page is quite extreme. The rest of the novel, to this point, isn’t quite so choppy, but why would she choose to open a story with that punctuation explosion?

Maybe it’s just me. I’ll admit I have an adverse reaction to comma overuse.

What do you think?

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49 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on Literele sufletului meu.

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    February 12, 2015
  2. Brandon #

    Twitch….

    It’s sentences like that that made me want to toss Henry James across the room.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 12, 2015
  3. Naomi #

    That first one? I had to read it three times to understand what the writer was trying to express. (Given, it’s nearly 1am here, but still!)

    Liked by 1 person

    February 12, 2015
  4. This drives me nuts- vary your sentence length! I shouldn’t have to map a sentence to keep track of the clauses!

    Liked by 1 person

    February 12, 2015
  5. I think the first excerpt sets up how confusing it must have been for the main character and the sister to grow up under the superverision of a conveyor belt of guardians. The second one I’d start a new sentence half way through at “from within” ot make it more readable.

    I don’t mind all the commas.

    Liked by 3 people

    February 12, 2015
  6. My eyes are as crossed as yours would’ve been! Reblogging this on https://tbofsblog.wordpress.com/ 🙂

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    February 12, 2015
  7. Reblogged this on The Brilliance Of Four Seasons.

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    February 12, 2015
  8. It’s not just you. It’s the equivalent of rumble strips on a road. As an editor, I try to keep sentence structure simple to help the reader. I do overuse parentheses in my own writing, but I always want reading to be as effortless as possible.

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    February 12, 2015
  9. Great insight as to intended effect, Belinda.

    I don’t mind the commas either, since I’m guilty of (over)using when they are grammatically correct.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 12, 2015
  10. The first sentence reminded me of the “begats”. I didn’t particularly mind the commas, but I frequently find myself having to force myself to lay off the commas.

    Liked by 2 people

    February 12, 2015
  11. I’m really sorry, but I can’t see the problem, though I admit there might have been easier ways to express what was to be said in this actually second sentence, and I’m not a native to English! Maybe having nine years Latin in school altered my way to see such sentences, because it’s usual to have 30 and more words without a fullstop or a comma. Of course, it wasn’t always easy to get the meaning right by first reading, nevertheless it made me adopting this way to think and write while my English teachers always told me I used to many commas in my English writing.
    I even appreciate the way Robinson wrote this. It says all that has to be said without unnecessary filler words, draws the reader’s attention and foreshadows what is to come. If one had to write a charaterisation of Ruth this sentence would be the first mentioned.
    Okay, it might me quite unusual for English literature, but would you really prefer 5 short unconnected sentences at the novel’s beginning?

    Liked by 2 people

    February 12, 2015
    • Not at all. I enjoy sentences of varying style. I think she could do that there. But that isn’t her style, so I get that.

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      February 12, 2015
  12. It’s brilliant the way she condenses so much backstory into the opening, fleshes out a character, establishes voice and moves the story forward. Rather than quibbling over commas, I want to know what happened to her parents and how she bore all that loss.

    Liked by 3 people

    February 12, 2015
    • And that’s why I’ll be reading the rest of the book.

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      February 12, 2015
  13. Stephen McDaniel #

    As writers, we have it hammered in that the first sentence must be interesting, unusual, eye-catching, has to pull the reader in. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, blah, blah. So some writers go to the extreme. Almost everyone read the first sentence about three times trying to make sense of it, so it was certainly eye-catching. But would you buy the book? I’m a ‘Strunk & White’ man. If the reader has to go back over anything you wrote to try to understand what you’ve said, you’ve done it wrong. The commas don’t bother me so much as the obscurity.

    Liked by 2 people

    February 12, 2015
  14. This is the kind of thing that drives me crazy. Basically she is saying that she is a serious writer and she wants to beat me over the head with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 12, 2015
    • Maybe she should have called the book, “Gone with the Comma” or Commatosis.

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      February 12, 2015
      • I just realized how funny that is, Don. And there’s only one letter separating comma and coma and both would work

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        February 15, 2015
  15. Lucille #

    I try to remember this is a first-person narrative. The voice gives us a clue as to the character’s personality. She’s rattling facts about her origins in short spurts, trying to get them out of the way before beginning her story. Since you have previously said you had been putting this novel off and felt you “just had bear down to read” it (9/15/14 post), I hope you are just not predisposed to dislike it based on preconceived notions.

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    February 12, 2015
    • Definitely not. I give a every story a fair shot. And, like I said, that opening page is unusual compared to the rest of the book so far.

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      February 12, 2015
  16. I thought the same thing about Hemingway. But, he can be accused of choppiness, too, I think. As I read the other comments, especially @bulkorn’s, I realized that first sentence is a story unto itself and I (almost) felt validated in my tendency to overuse commas.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 12, 2015
    • Susan #

      Maybe Robert can host our own “Write like Hemmingway” contest: rewrite the first paragraph in Hemmingway’s style!

      Like

      February 12, 2015
  17. Susan #

    Actually, I liked both passages.

    I think the second sentence in the opening paragraph is intentionally choppy and difficult – like the narrator’s upbringing. The structure makes the reader go over it a couple of times, which is when one notices the verbs used for the adults that are no longer there: “died,” “fled,” “escaped.” That’s also when the reader notices the unconventional order of the caregivers: first the grandmother, then the aunts, and finally her own mother. I don’t think I’ve seen many openings that imply so much in such a short space, regardless of sentence structure. It seems that “Ruth” is aptly named.

    As for the second quote, I never thought that one sentence could make the Great Plains of the mid-West seem claustrophobic.

    Robert, you mentioned that these were extreme passages. I haven’t read the book (though I really want to now) but I think that sentences like these aren’t accidental loss of punctuation control. I think they’re a cue to the reader to slow down and pay attention because something important is being related.

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    February 12, 2015
    • Oh, I don’t think anything was accidental. Marilynn Robinson is a world-class writer, so everything she does is intentional. My question was why she would open the story that way. Some of the explanations above make sense but don’t lessen the jarring nature of that opener, in my opinion.

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      February 12, 2015
    • How do you know that mrs Sylvia Fisher is her mother. It could also be an aunt, no?

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      February 12, 2015
      • Susan #

        Sure it could. Or “her daughter” could be one of the aunts’ daughters, which would make it a cousin who helped raise her. If so it is all the more mysterious as to where her mother was in all this, since she wasn’t listed among the deceased or escaped.

        The whole debate of which might have been missed had the author opened with a nice tidy sentence that the reader could breeze through without slowing down, IMO.

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        February 12, 2015
  18. Laura #

    At some point we are all guilty of overdoing it on a grammar device. I remember when I taught some high school students how to properly use a semicolon…and then they went semicolon crazy in their writing. Something about learning a new grammar device gets people excited. BUT I don’t expect that in a professional and published piece.

    Like

    February 12, 2015
  19. I believe that this is done purposefully to give the reader a sense of how the narrator thinks, establishing the narrative voice. I haven’t read this book, but you say the sentences settle down after the first page. I’m thinking that Robinson new exactly how unsettling this would be, used the device for a brief period and then eased up on the reader. Just a guess.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 12, 2015
    • I agree it’s done purposefully, as would everything of a novel at this level. It’s just jarring. And, for my tastes, offputting. But it actually gets much easier to follow.

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      February 12, 2015
  20. I like this style of writing. The commas turn the prose more poetic for me, and encourage me to follow along for a conclusion. No doubt this is a personal preference—I just love words. When they’re strung together right.(Disclosure: I tend to write this way myself. Don’t judge me.)

    Like

    February 12, 2015
  21. 1 vote Yea; 1 vote Nay. That’s my verdict. The first example you cite is choppy, and too info-dump for my taste. I found the second sentence both poetic and beautiful as it seemed to mold the house out of the surrounding materials and yet show the emptiness of the landscape. It reads like someone shaping clay on their potter’s wheel.

    Like

    February 12, 2015
  22. larry #

    Robert, how would you punctuate the two paragraphs??

    Like

    February 12, 2015
    • Fewer commas. An extra period or two. The parentheticals could be easily removed and built in to the sentence without the choppiness. But I’m no Marilynne Robinson.

      Like

      February 12, 2015
  23. Wow, so, so choppy! I like commas, but these really broke up the flow of the writing for me.

    Like

    February 12, 2015
  24. I hate too many commas! With a passion. I know where you’re coming from.

    Like

    February 12, 2015
  25. Matt #

    I’ll take an extra comma or two over silly semicolons.

    Like

    February 12, 2015
  26. I used to overuse commas massively and it’s a habit I’ve tried very hard to break, because I find it particularly annoying!

    Like

    February 12, 2015
  27. In my opinion, I think that Ms. Robinson could have found a better way to get her point across. I had to reread the passages to understand exactly what was going on, and I hate not understanding what a person is trying to tell me the first time through.

    Like

    February 12, 2015
  28. rentdragon #

    When I was learning grammar in grade school I was told that once you are an acclaimed writer you may alter the rules of grammar so as to ensure your audience can best understand your point. If a person is to strictly follow the rules that we, as elementary school students, had to follow then that puts quite the damper on a writer’s ability to accurately express his/her thoughts/emotions. I tend to agree with this lesson because it makes sense that this limitation (“proper grammar”) was created to educate and hone writing ability to where, perhaps one day, the abilities would transcend “proper grammar” and be able to communicate one’s own ideas in a grammar all its own. Hence, such novel writers such as Hemingway, Lewis, Dickinson, et al have, to varying degrees, utilized their own style of grammar to better convey the proper expression of their ideas. Until we reach the status of such legends, though, amateur writers must first prove that they can convey thoughts effectively within the limitations of “proper grammar.” The mark of a true writer is that he/she can implant his/her thoughts directly into the hearts and minds of the audience (intended or unintended) even within the confines of “proper grammar.” Once at that level, I feel as though writers have earned their right to use grammar however they need in order to better send their message.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 12, 2015
    • You are, of course, right about these things. But there is still that one principle above all the others: clarity. Long words or short; this style or that; doesn’t matter. Without clarity there is no hope for enchantment. As Nabokov has said, a writer is a storyteller, an educator (or moralist as Fitzgerald would have it) but the major writer is an enchanter from the very first page.

      Like

      February 15, 2015
  29. Several years ago when I sat down to read Housekeeping, I struggled with it and didn’t understand why! I’d heard numerous recommendations and kept blaming myself for feeling it was a distracting plod. I didn’t have the patience to delve into my reaction but simply set the book aside. You’ve helped me understand. Thanks!

    Like

    February 13, 2015
  30. Ok, if we’re going to do this thing, let’s do it right and rewrite the damned sentence. Anyone wanna give it a shot?

    Like

    February 13, 2015
    • How about we simply locate the source of the problem in the text itself and go from there?

      Like

      February 13, 2015
  31. Oh my! not sure I would get beyond the first sentence!

    Like

    February 14, 2015
  32. I run up against these all the time.

    Like

    February 15, 2015
  33. Taxing, perhaps, but not as wearying as the aggressive exclamation. Impossible to keep up with, or even care about a writer who insists the reader maintain a state of near hysteria (as in !!!). Excessive presence of the exclamation is often a symptom of post-adolescence. As the bloom of youth fades, so too may exclamatory excitement. While the aging writer will likely miss the energy that once poured onto paper, this decline usually has one good result: disappearance of the formerly ubiquitous exclamation!

    Like

    February 17, 2015

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