Monday, October 4, 2010

More about parallelism (and a little about diction)

On page two of the handout on semicolons ("Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location") is an interesting example of parallelism. In this case, paragraphs are made parallel, with a bit of variation.

After reporting Neil Neches's insertion of the semicolon in NY subway placards and explaining how it came to be, author Sam Roberts presents comments by various authorities on grammar and punctuation. The section reads:

Louis Menand, an English professor at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker, pronounced the subway poster’s use of the semicolon to be “impeccable.”

Lynne Truss, author of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” called it a “lovely example” of proper punctuation.

Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, praised the “burgeoning of punctuational literacy in unlikely places.”

Allan M. Siegal, a longtime arbiter of New York Times style before retiring, opined, “The semicolon is correct, though I’d have used a colon, which I think would be a bit more sophisticated in that sentence.”

The linguist Noam Chomsky sniffed, “I suppose Bush would claim it’s the effect of No Child Left Behind.”
Let's look at the structure of these paragraphs:
name of authority / identification of profession / verb / comment
As you'll notice, there is a bit of variation here within the parallel structure: in the last paragraph, Roberts uses a restrictive appositive--"the linguist"--instead of following Chomsky's name with a modifier. He could have easily written "Noam Chomsky, noted linguist and philosopher…" Why didn't he? I think one answer might be that Chomsky is such a towering figure, Roberts felt there was no reason to identify him beyond "the linguist." You'll notice too that out of all the verbs paired with the authorities, the most condescending follows Chomsky's name.

Pronounced and called are neutral in tone, praised is positive, and opined is, in this context, overly formal, suggesting, as sniffed does, something about the authority's character. Opined and sniffed comment on Siegel and Chomsky, respectively, just as their statements comment on Neches. Roberts selected these verbs with care--this is what we mean by diction--and we can see that his sense of humor emerged when he got to the last two authorities.

How should the copyeditor handle something like the last paragraph? I would say that he or she could assume that given the parallelism of the first four paragraphs, Roberts was making a deliberate stylistic choice. Was it a good choice, though, one that should be respected and allowed to stand? I would say yes, but I wonder if Eleanor Gould might disagree…

Neil Neches in one of the cars he helped civilize with the semicolon.


Samantha said...

I'm glad you pointed out the diction because it's important to note how the choice of words reflects on the speaker as well as that those speakers weren't as eager in their praise.

I would agree that the break from parallel structure in the last paragraph is acceptable on the grounds that it adds closure to the list, though the context within the whole piece might make a difference.

Pat said...

I hadn't thought of the change in parallel structure as signaling closure; that is, it hadn't occurred to me that Roberts might change the parallelism in order to bring to a close this particular section.

Instead, I thought that there was a progressive escalation of authority in this section, and the change in parallelism signaled a change in voice: we started with Menand's generous pronouncement and ended with Chomsky's ungenerous sniffing. It's almost as if Roberts was having Chomsky say that we humans may think we do important things, but the gods interpret our actions differently--and in these interpretations, we little humans disappear.

Perhaps you and I are concluding the same thing, Samantha, but your use of the word closure makes me think that Roberts's stylistic decision was broader than I had imagined.

Anyway, thank you for your thoughtful and intriguing comment :-)

Samantha said...

Thanks Pat! I'm glad I could think up something new and exciting (:

Samantha said...

And, yes, I think we are in agreement about the change in tone of the list.