Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Punctuation and parentheses

In a new video from The New Yorker , Mary Norris talks about punctuation and parentheses. The sticky wicket: Situation No. 3, “Several sentences in quotation marks within parentheses.” Norris uses as an example a sentence from a recent New Yorker article about the actress and model Hari Nef. For clarity: the pronoun she refers to Nef, not Piczo:

A Japanese photographer named Piczo snapped away, offering monosyllabic feedback (“Nice.” “Good.” “Good.” “Yep”) as she posed in a faux-fur coat that exposed a vertical sliver of pale torso.
That final unpunctuated “Yep” looks odd to me. Norris’s explanation leaves me unpersuaded:
“If you put a period there, it would just stop the whole flow of the sentence. So by not having the period, you know the sentence is going to continue.”
I would argue that a reader already knows that the sentence is going to continue because the opening parenthesis is still waiting for its closing partner to show up. And when that partner does show up, the sentence is still without a period. It goes on.

The Chicago Manual of Style (6.13) advises against a period when a complete sentence appears in parentheses within another sentence: “the period belongs outside.” A Chicago sample sentence: “Farnsworth had left an angry message for Isadora on the mantle (she noticed it while glancing in the mirror).” But 6.13 adds: “see also 6.96.” That section adds some complications:
A question mark, an exclamation point, and closing quotation marks precede a closing parenthesis if they belong to the parenthetical matter; they follow it if they belong to the surrounding sentence. A period precedes the closing parenthesis if the entire sentence is in parentheses; otherwise it follows.
The sample sentences that follow in 6.96 make clear that the words “if the entire sentence is in parentheses” refer to sentences in parentheses that stand alone, not sentences in parentheses within other sentences. Following the guidance in 6.96, a writer could embed a series of questions in parentheses, each ending with a question mark and enclosed in quotation marks:
A reporter asked questions (“Who?” “What?” “When?” “Where?” “Why?”) as the model posed in a faux-fur coat.
But if those question marks and quotation marks belong to the parenthetical matter, so too, I think, does the period that seems oddly missing after “Yep.”

The puzzle of punctuating “(‘Nice.’ ‘Good.’ ‘Good.’ ‘Yep’)” can be solved by taking into account what Chicago says in both 6.13 and 6.96: “Avoid enclosing more than one sentence within another sentence.” Granted, the parenthetical sentences in the New Yorker sentence are one-worders. But recasting the sentence avoids all problems:
Nef posed in a faux-fur coat that exposed a vertical sliver of pale torso, as a Japanese photographer named Piczo snapped away, offering monosyllabic feedback: “Nice.” “Good.” “Good.” “Yep.”
You can read the original sentence in context and decide if my revision does any damage to meaning. I don’t think it does. A bonus: the revision removes the possible confusion of Piczo and Nef (“she”). I will admit though that I like neither the original sentence nor my revision. “A Japanese photographer named Piczo,” “a vertical sliver of pale torso”: too cluttered for my taste. And why tell the reader that the feedback is monosyllabic? The photographer’s words themselves show that.

I have written at length and with enthusiasm about Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. I’ve been less impressed by Norris’s New Yorker videos. Their recommendations seem sometimes arbitrary, sometimes confusing. This discussion of parentheses and punctuation smacks of reverse engineering, beginning with the way The New Yorker does things (“That’s how we do it at The New Yorker ,” Norris says) and then working out an explanation. But I can’t imagine an explanation that would make “(‘Nice.’ ‘Good.’ ‘Good.’ ‘Yep’)” look anything other than odd.

Related reading
All OCA punctuation posts (Pinboard)

[Writing this post was a lot more fun than thinking about that debate. I was all set to embed the New Yorker video until I heard the name Goldman Sachs in the obligatory ad. An ad-blocking extension will zap the ad at The New Yorker website.]

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