Monday, June 17, 2013

Book Review: A Dash of Style

by Noah Lukeman. 2006.

A Dash of Style is an exciting book on grammatical punctuation. Yes, that's right: exciting. It's not a history of punctuation and it's not a compendium of every which way you may use a comma. Instead, it's an introduction to a troupe of players who are going to help you put on your show. You meet the magician (the colon), the advisor (parentheses), and the bridge (the semicolon), and liberally spiced with examples of their greatest performances from Poe to Forster, Lukeman shows how the dozen or so points of punctuation can really make your work sing.

Lukeman's greatest strength here is his ability to define these strange little symbols in clear and memorable terms. He doesn't tell us how we're allowed to use it or even how we ought to, but rather he tells us what these marks do and how they'll affect our sentences: the dash interrupts, the colon "pulls back the curtain." With a crystal clear definition in place, Lukeman then gives examples of various combinations and uses, some contrived to make a point and some quotations from the greats. The quotations are generous and choice, creating a miniature anthology not of do's-and-don'ts, but of, well, style.

That's not to say Lukeman has thrown all the rules to the wind; he's clear about what constitutes strict and loose use of a punctuation mark. Yet Lukeman approaches from the point of style, that is, the expression of thought, not from rules. The result is a book which empowers you to refine your process, unlike textbooks which can paralyze you with conditionals. The happy result is that A Dash of Style is less admonition and more invitation, a book you can return to both for example and inspiration. In fact, the author concludes each chapter with a dozen or so questions for examining one's own writing. For example, take something you've written and take out all the semicolons, or try to find a moment to use a colon. What did it do? Do you want more or less of that effect?

It's a rather culinary approach, a pinch of this and a dash of that, and as such it respects the authority of the author. On the other hand you may feel more pressure to do well in the shadow of the masters than you do following the prescriptions of a rule book. Not quite pressure to punctuate well, though, so much as pressure to give proper expression to one's ideas. In this respect A Dash of Style is a challenge to know thyself by mastering that process of putting thought to page.

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