Modern Power Punctuation and Grammar

Writing Tips

Dead Body Girl (free book)

Short Stories


Chapter 1: My Discovery of SePG


The following passage has a paradox. The grammar of the second sentence is complicated. But the sentence itself is not that difficult to understand (except for the old-fashioned words).

He had his slippers on, and a loose bedgown, and his throat was bare for his greater ease. He had that rather wild, strained, seared marking about the eyes, which may be observed in all free livers of his class, from the portrait of Jeffries downward, and which can be traced, under various disguises of Art, through the portraits of every Drinking Age. (Great Expectations, Dickens, page 90 of paperback)

If you focus hard on that second sentence, you might fully understand the grammar. I do concede that. But if you were actually reading the whole book, each sentence would tire you, and sooner or later (probably sooner) you'd give up on working hard to understanding the grammar. And then the full grammar would be gone.

(Having read this far, you are probably a lot better at grammar than most readers. So you can't use your own grammar abilities to predict the experience of an average reader.)

EG has assigned too many roles to the comma. Sometimes you have to understand the grammar of the sentence before you can know what the comma does. But when their full grammatical role is obscured, commas still have a primitive role -- they separate things. So, in the absence of hard work or exceptional skill, that sentence by Dickens "degenerates" into just sequence of phrases, separated by commas.

But instead of being confusing, Dickens makes sense as just a sequence of phrases. It's as if a second grammar processor resides in everyone's brain, one that can process an unconnected sequence of phrases. And Dickens mostly wrote so that his sentences could be understood that way (though you will learn to do better).

I don't see how the first sentence fits EG either. Meanwhile, it too is easily understood as a sequence of phrases.

Contrast Dickens to Hawthorne:

The truth seems to be, however, that, when he casts his leaves forth upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates or lifemates. (The Scarlet Letter, start)

You cannot read this as an unconnected sequence of phrases. If you try, a lot of the phrases won't make sense; it certainly wasn't meant to be read that way. Instead, you have to connect and organize the phrases for them to make sense, using the rules of EG.

Which is to say, to understand that sentence you have to grasp its full grammatical structure. If you give up on understanding Hawthorne's grammar, you got nothin'. Put less evocatively, if you are confused about the grammar, you will be missing what Hawthorne hoped and expected you would understand.

Hawthorne gave you as much help as he could, but he expected you to know and apply EG. However, because this is a long, complicated sentence, understanding the grammar is difficult. So, Hawthorne's grammatically-perfect sentences are challenging to read.

Meanwhile, Dickens, writing some 30 years after Hawthorne, had found a style of writing that allowed readers to understand long sentences without understanding the underlying grammar. That was an amazing achievement and part of Dickens' success in writing for the masses.

Or someone else found it and Dickens then copied it, or improved on it, or popularized it -- it's impossible for me to go back and find out who exactly did what. In any case, Dickens is my marker -- some 30 years after Hawthorne, Dickens had a way of writing that did not require a firm understanding of grammar but made sense when it degenerated into a sequence of phrases. Writing had advanced. Or regressed, depending on your affection for EG.

What had I accomplished with my realization about Dickens? People can understand a sequence of phrases without understanding the EG. When they did that, the commas were just separators.

However, all I really had was an understanding of an archaic writing style. I was thrilled, true, but I'm easily thrilled by grammar stuff. SePG wasn't a big deal yet.

Brown and Rollins

A few weeks after my insight about Dickens, I idly wondered what would happen if SePG was used for short sentences. It was just an idea, and I didn't expect it to lead anywhere. After all, I thought, why would SePG be needed for short sentences?

Well . . .

I had spent a month trying to understand how authors like James Rollins (Excavation) and Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) used commas. It was too confusing; I couldn't find their rules; I couldn't find their reasons for breaking the EG rules. I was bedeviled. No human being should have to spend a month thinking about commas, I still have bad memories of that time.

But when I looked at Brown and Rollins, now armed with this idle speculation, their style suddenly made perfect sense -- it was just a sequence of phrases.

He still wore his Dominican robe, black wool and silk, but it was stained and torn. His Incan captors had stripped him all possessions, except for his robe and cross. The tribal shaman had warned the others not to touch these talismans from his "foreign" god, afraid of insulting this stranger's deity. (Excavation, Rollins, start)

The modifying phrase black wool and silk isn't really what is supposed to go inside a double comma; the next sentence's comma probably shouldn't be there, either grammatically or for meaning; the last sentence has a grammatically misplaced modifier. So none of the commas above can be justified in the normal grammar. You can understand my frustration.

But as a sequence of phrases, then -- aha! Eureka! -- it makes perfect sense. (Try reading it that way -- you won't have any trouble understanding it.) So I needed SePG to understand modern authors. And once I read using SePG -- everything they did made sense and even seemed like good, clever writing.

Ungrammatical? I showed authors one sentence from Brown, and they invented grammar rules to cover it. Which is to say, with a modification or stretch or reinterpretation, they could explain that sentence by Brown as being grammatically correct.

But everyone had their own, idiosyncratic solution. Even more of a problem, their efforts just explained the one sentence I gave them. To understand all of Brown and Rollins, they were going to have to do a lot of changing to the EG. I had already explored that path, and it didn't work.

Meanwhile, I had explained Brown and Rollins with just one idea, and it was an idea I already had sitting around from Dickens. Scientifically speaking, that was a very good sign.

I'm using Brown and Rollins as markers. But it wasn't just them, it was a lot of authors -- famous, successful authors -- (1) breaking the rules in seemingly unexplainable ways, and (2) making sense from the perspective of SePG.

In the sand, some of the three-toed bird tracks were small, and so faint they could hardly be seen. (Jurassic Park, Crichton, page 13)

In the sand is sitting at the front of the sentence like an adverbial phrase, but it modifies where the tracks were found, not where the tracks were small. The last comma separates two objects, which is common in writing (especially Crichton's), but it's ungrammatical.

But despite the rule-breaking, the sentence makes sense. You're not supposed to be decoding the EG of that sentence -- Crichton thought of it as a sequence of phrases, and you're supposed to read it that way.

The SePG idea had just gotten serious.

Striking Home

I was snooty about Dickens, Brown, and Rollins. I'm embarrassed and apologetic about that now, but it's just who I was: I care deeply about grammar; I try to make the grammar of my sentences as simple and easy to understand as possible; I liked reading other authors who easily displayed their grammar. Dickens, Brown, and Rollins' writing bothered the EG processor in my head, which kept getting frustrated with the sentences it couldn't process.

So, from my perspective, Browns, Rollins, and shady authors like them had found a way to write ungrammatically and make money. Yes, I was snooty and cynical.

My all-time favorite book is The Fault in Our Stars, partially for its wonderful use of punctuation and grammar. Green, the author, occasionally writes long sentences. When I happened to look at one, soon after my Brown-Rollins insight, I immediately noticed that Green's long sentence was . . . too complicated for the EG to be understandable, but perfectly understandable as a sequence of phrases. Oops.

The following isn't the first sentence I studied, but it makes the point perfectly. I don't think it's grammatically correct; if you can work out that it is, you've wasted your time, and the reader surely is not doing that.

They [her parents] met in the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea, and so whenever anything happened there, even something terrible, it was like all of a sudden they were not large sedentary creatures, but the young and idealistic and self-sufficient and rugged people they had once been, and their rapture was such that they didn't even glance over at me as I ate faster than I'd ever eaten, transmitting items from my plate into my mouth with a speed and ferocity that left me quite out of breath, which of course made me worry that my lungs were again swimming in a rising pool of fluid.

Long sentences put a burden on the reader, so their grammar must be easily understood. Knowing this, when I wrote a long sentence, I unimaginatively used simple grammar. Rushdie (Shalimar the Clown) has a 277-word sentence with a relatively simple, understandable grammar. But Green's sentence was grammatically complicated, according to EG . . . so it should have been impossible to understand . . . but it wasn't . . . because it made sense with SePG. Just like Dickens.

My snooty attitude crashed and burned when I found SePG in my own writing.

The second bullet CRACKLES off the wall to my right, shocking me, I trip and almost fall, bouncing clumsily against the left wall.

I was intentionally being ungrammatical. I knew that. I also knew the sentence made sense, I made sure of that. The new awareness was why it made sense: I had unknowingly relied on SePG. (Really, even today I can turn on my EG processor and be jolted by that sentence. And I can turn it off and that sentence seems perfectly normal.)

It's not just me. In the middle of a book full of grammatically traditional sentences, I read:

Being alone with Suzette made Sonia's absence all the more conspicuous, a ghost in the room. (The Myth of You and Me, Stewart, page 209)

A ghost in the room looks at first like a misplaced modifier; those are so common nowadays you wouldn't even have noticed a problem. But it's not clear that a ghost in the room modifies anything. Instead, it's just a phrase ungrammatically added to the end of the sentence. Meanwhile, the sentence is no problem to understand as a sequence of phrases.

I was annoyed while reading a book by Dressen, because of her "grammar errors", but I didn't have anything else to read. So, in desperation, I turned off my EG processor. Then it was this great story and I wasn't annoyed. She just dips into SePG occasionally. So SePG isn't just a way to write, it's a way to read.

There is one more piece of evidence for now. I wrote a short story using SePG (Appendix A). To make this a good test of SePG, I used ungrammatical sentences in a lot of places. Would my story be understandable? This is one paragraph from that story (about two ghosts):

Norm appears next to me, like he does every year. Funny how dying on the same day and being buried in the same cemetery could tie two guys together, but there it is -- Norm saying hi, Norm asking about my afterlife, us shaking hands, then Norm and me sitting on the hill, sitting and sitting, sharing stories, watching, waiting. Wondering.

A few readers (fellow writers) complained about the number of commas, but no one had any trouble understanding the story. So SePG passed the test -- it's an understandable grammar. I wasn't too surprised -- in a sense Rollins, Brown, Dickens, et al. had already shown that.

I was, meanwhile, thrilled with the result, and thrilled with the possibilities. I wasn't in Kansas any more, and I liked this new place I had accidentally found. It's more colorful, and if there's a dead witch under my house -- not my problem. The path ahead wasn't paved with gold, but I was compelled to follow it.

I've now written a lot in SePG. I have stumbled upon a modern author (Martin Clark) who writes beautiful SePG. And I wrote this book, which made me analyze SePG a lot. SePG is something old, something new, something useful, and did I mention the part about being fun? It's an exciting world, and it's an adventure. Grammatically speaking, of course, but grammar is an incessant part of writing.