Just a dash

29 Aug

I know, I know: I keep going on about this. And the ship sailed a long time ago. But look at this:

Picture 70

It’s a perfect example – the best I’ve ever seen  – of when a Fowler comma is not only desirable but necessary.

Fowler, as we have discussed before, took a strict line on parentheses in Modern English Usage, advising as follows:

1. Parentheses may be indicated in any one of four ways: by square brackets, by round brackets, by dashes, and by commas …

2. After the second bracket or dash any stop that would have been used if the brackets or dashes and their contents had not been there should still be used.

Unlike his proposal for separating the use of “which” and “that”, which has been widely applied and misapplied in formal English, this idea – that if you add a dashed parenthesis at the end of a subordinate clause, you must still retain the closing comma of the clause – has been totally disregarded. That’s not surprising: it looks very peculiar, however you arrange it – even like this –, when you include every mark.

But look at the sentence above, describing the way that reality show Educating Yorkshire was filmed. The dashed parenthesis in the middle, “64 automatic cameras and microphones rather than intrusive film crews”, looks normal. But, in fact, it has been placed in the middle of a list, and inserting it has caused one of the delimiting commas to disappear.

So when you parse the sentence, you go wrong. The standard editor’s test is that you should be able to lift a parenthetical clause out of a sentence without affecting the syntax or grammar of what’s left, and this apparently passes with flying colours:

The key to the programme is the use of the fixed rigs […] retaining the trust of teachers.

That’s clear: the automatic filming system wins teachers’ confidence by not having disruptive outsiders in the classroom.

But that’s not what it means. It was only when I got to the apparently unnecessary comma after “teachers”, and thought it looked suspiciously like an Oxford comma, that I realised: this isn’t a two-part list, it’s a three-part list. There are three things that are key to the programme’s success: (i) using fixed rigs; (ii) retaining the trust of teachers, and (iii) selecting the right school. There is no causal relationship between the teachers’ trust and the fixed rigs. The insertion of the dashed parenthetical clause has caused the first and second points to merge into one, because we don’t put commas after dashes.

The fix is simple, of course: put the parenthetical clause into brackets.

The key to the programme is the use of the fixed rigs (64 automatic cameras and microphones rather than intrusive film crews), retaining the trust of teachers, and selecting the right school.

But that only works because it is acceptable to punctuate after a closing bracket mark. If you take the comma out, you’re back to the original, mistaken reading. Curiously, we can punctuate after some parenthetical marks but not others.

Too late to do anything about that, of course; if Fowler’s suggestion didn’t catch on in 1926, it’s not going to catch on now. But accidental ambiguities like that haunts the lives of sub-editors.  It’s nice to know that they alarmed Fowler too.

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