Owen, however …

Recently, I was seduced by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. I haven’t before been drawn in to the whole Paris thing; much as I liked Amelie, it didn’t make me feel the urge to rush over there. Midnight, on the other hand, did. Perhaps it was partly the awful tourist characters who provided the example of ignorance that I knew I would never be. Cough, cough. Of course it was partly the cast: Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Michael Sheen … am I forgetting anyone? Oh, yes, Owen Wilson. I had had the opportunity of seeing the movie the previous weekend and decided against it on the strength of Owen’s being the star. I’ve never really been a fan of his style; he seems to play the same character over again and no one seems to notice. He has all the range of an inchworm. There’s a line in Midnight in Paris where he’s trying to get Gertrude Stein to help him and he says, ‘I would like you to read my novel’; he delivers this with exactly the same level of excitement as he tells his fiancée (spoiler alert), ‘We’re probably not very well suited anyway.’ It’s all the same rhythm: a rise in the middle, a fall, another rise about 2/3 the height of the first and then flatline.

I see this in writing a lot. It happens in many structures, but because I’ve been editing research reports where people are often trying to convey complex arguments what I see is:

Here is a lovely statement about X; however, here’s a statement about Y. Now we have a new statement about Z; however, it’s not the same as this statement about Q.

There’s no problem with doing this; it’s just that when it’s overdone, it has the effect of lulling your reader to sleep as effectively as a long train journey across the Nullabor. You lose the force of your message in that even beat.

The fix is to work out:

  1. Do you really need to position those two ideas against each other?
  2. Can you use another contrasting conjunction such as ‘but’, ‘whereas’, ‘instead’ or ‘yet’. Too many of these, though, and you haven’t fixed the issue of the rhythm.
  3. Can you just use the semi-colon and have the two independent clauses stand so the reader has to infer the relationship between them?
  4. Can you separate the clauses so that they are two separate sentences (at least some of the time)? You could still use a contrasting conjunction, but perhaps use a phrase such as ‘On the other hand’ instead of a single word.
  5. Can you change one of the clauses so that the length is varied in one of them? Perhaps you can add some adjectival phrase, or take out part of one of the sentences.

Also, pay attention to what effect these fixes have on the words you use. You may find that forcing yourself to change things such as sentence length makes you change the vocabulary. That’s a good thing, as it also shows you the subtle shifts in meaning that can come from almost-synonymous words, as opposed to the fuddled, sleepy feeling that can come from almost-identical rhythms.

The lighter side

Who said grammar, spelling and punctuation weren’t funny? Here are some of my favourites, beginning with my favourite Christmas joke:

What do you call Santa’s little helpers?

Subordinate clauses.

What’s the difference between a cat and a comma?

One has claws at the end of its paws and one is a pause at the end of a clause.

Shakespeare walks in to a bar.

The bartender says, ‘You’re bard.’

Here are a few other sites for grammar goodies:

Grammar humour

Tips to improve your writing

Graham Rawle’s Lost Consonants

The Oatmeal: Grammar

Boggleton Drive

Grammar Girl

The OWL at Purdue