… would be impossible.
Day-to-day dialogue would be unhelpful and dull without parenthetical asides, mid-sentence descriptions, reminders, questions, interjections. Written language would lose commas, dashes, and round brackets. Indeed, the news, already written to be as straightforward and stylistically unadorned as possible, would convey only half of the information, and only to the already informed reader. For example, as I am composing this post, the front page sports article of the BBC is about Venus Williams competing at Wimbledon, and the first time a comma appears in the article it signals a parenthetical insertion (italics are mine).
The American, 37, will overtake sister Serena’s record – set when she was 35 at the Australian Open in January – by winning her sixth SW19 title.
Imagine that those two italicised fragments were missing. The first, telling us Venus’s age, is crucial to the article’s lead sentence: Venus Williams could become the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era; the second, answers a natural question that arises while reading about Serena’s record, namely, what is the record? (Added Saturday afternoon: Sorry, Venus!)
The language of literature, though, would suffer even further without parentheses. Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidence (introduced in my previous post, The Woman and the Painter). The Irish protagonist reflects on life in America; the we refers to him and two of his Irish girlfriends.
Quote: Perhaps contempt was for us a form of nostalgia, of homesickness, even? Living there, amid those gentle, paintbox colours, under that dome of flawless blue, was like living in another world, a place out of a story-book. (I used to dream of rain — real, daylong, Irish rain — as if it were something I had been told about but had never seen.) Or perhaps laughing at America was a means of defence? It’s true, at times it crossed our minds, or it crossed my mind, at least, that we might be just the teeniest bit laughable ourselves.
That is 99 words, of which 54 are parenthetical.
What makes the Quote quiver?
Rich prose: lyrical, colloquial, intimate.
What makes the Quote rich? Let’s strip out the asides and interruptions. (Note that the Quote also has an aside within an aside.)
Perhaps contempt was for us a form of nostalgia? Living there was like living in another world. Or perhaps laughing at America was a means of defence? It’s true, at times it crossed our minds that we might be just the teeniest bit laughable ourselves.
It’s not bad writing; it’s clear, concise, but a bit disjointed, like a series of verbal bursts without the lilt of cohesive speech. The lyrical paintbox colours, dream of rain, and story-book are gone. The explanatory colloquialisms of homesickness and or it crossed my mind are gone too. And with all that, the intimacy of a first person voice is gone, leaving behind a we and a series of statements that rouse few emotions.
What is at the core of the Quote?
Parenthesis, from the Greek parentithenai meaning put in beside, is a figure in which one or more words interrupt the syntactic flow of an otherwise complete sentence. It is marked off by commas, dashes, or round brackets. (The latter is commonly thought of as the first meaning of the word parenthesis; it’s the second.)
Asides or afterthoughts, highlights or emphasis, where and when, humour and irony and colour and life—how you employ parentheses determines your writing style in a different way than does word choice or theme. It’s a patterning of language that receives little attention, which is a shame: tweaking it makes all the difference.
- Style: Quirks and Perks, QQ. On E. B. White’s vision of style in writing.
- Other articles on quotes from John Banville’s books, QQ. There is a lot to learn from him.
- The Book of Evidence, John Banville. It’s part of a trilogy, so if you like the first book, there’s more!