January 2009


I’d like to go back in time and kick my 14- to 18-year-old self. She used to daydream and doodle in English classes. I blame her for the feeling I get in my stomach when I read certain sentences.

There wouldn’t be much wrong with the sentence, even: the grammar would be OK; the spelling would be OK; and I wouldn’t be able to fault it for clarity. But I something was wrong. It stayed like this until, oh, last Tuesday when I did one of my google searches and I read about prepositional phrases. And then I realised something: *that’s* what I don’t like. I don’t like introductory prepositional phrases.

These phrases start with a preposition and has a noun phrase or pronoun after that: In Putsonderwater good food means eating at your mom’s. Sentences could have more than one prepositional phrase  –> In Putsonderwater is one; at your mom’s is the second. Now see, there’s nothing wrong with using ’em occasionally. The same could be said for almost anything else in life: sex, drugs, rock n roll. Fine, then. Perhaps not sex.

Why my dislike for these phrases, then? Well, there are at least two reasons. Introductory prepositional phrases can survive without commas but too many people still use commas. So one more comma is born into this cruel world.

I think these phrases are awkward so I rewrite them. Which sounds better: Since 2008 Joy-Mari has been writing about language, grammar and stuff. OR Joy-Mari has been writing about language, grammar and stuff since 2008.

Yes, I know it all depends on what you want to emphasise. So, yes, you could emphasise that I have been writing Word Whisperer since 2008. But you could find a different way of telling that story, no?

The third reason is that we have forgotten how to use our brains. We tend to write whatever trips out. No, wait. Writing a first draft is good. But failing to edit is unforgivable. So perhaps I’m biased but I prefer the second sentence. The first sentence tempts one to slip a comma between 2008 and Joy-Mari. Learn to resist that temptation; do without introductory prepositional phrases.

Edit: I suppose moderation is always better. Don’t eschew these prepositional phrases; use them sparingly.

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By now everyone on the planet knows that I’m reading Cloud Atlas. And that I’m struggling. It’s not a struggle reminiscent of Mrs Dalloway or Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel. But it’s a struggle: I need to look up the meaning of every third of fourth word. I have to reread the sentence or paragraph and only then can I laugh, belatedly, at the narrator’s joke or snide comment.

I don’t mind using a dictionary; however, I think David Mitchell went overboard with the words he chose.  I appreciate jargon — when it’s needed — and the occasional Française phrase. But why so often? And why does he insist on using flamboyant words instead of their more well-known synonyms of German descent?

I could never write like that. My writing is bland in comparison but I’d rather be understood. I don’t want to force my readers to a dictionary with every sentence. Or every word. Use le mot juste but do not make me grope for my dictionaries only to spend half an hour deciphering what you meant.

But sometimes I wonder whose readers are worse off: those who use everyday words and the occasional sprinkling of highbrow words, or those who use many such words? Yes, perhaps my readers never encounter a new word when they read my articles. And sometimes I feel guilty. Should I be using more unknown words (I was reluctant to use that adjective, I promise), even though they do not form part of my vocabulary? And how many are enough?

One of the clever boys I dated told me someone, somewhere will always think my writing is too ‘intelligent’; I should just relax and do what I enjoy most — write. And not worry about the supposed intellectual quotient. Besides, Hemingway also didn’t care much for big words. So I’m in excellent company. And I am well on my way to becoming an eristic lapidary.

But why do I struggle through this book? Well, because of sentences such as these: “The youngest dendroglyph is, I suppose, ten years old, but the elders, grown distended as the trees matured, were incised by heathens whose very ghosts are long defunct.”

Update: I had no idea Copyblogger‘s writing about more or less the same thing. Promise.

Two thousand and great wasn’t my best year for reading books; I suffered from reader’s block. Or reading-thick-novels-block, then. But I’m glad to say that the few books I read were quality ones. I have become fussy in my reading habits. But not highbrow. Just fussy.

I also didn’t plan to write a post like this; I was going to dream about which books I’d like to read in 2009. And it helps that I started reading a book — Outliers — just yesterday. In Wordsworth, nogals.

The book that pulled me through 2008

I got He’s just not that into you as a belated birthday gift in 2006. It helped me more than ever last year. I used to sneer at self-help books but this one is just so darn good. It got me through … let’s see, now…it got me through 4 relationships and made me realise I want and need better. Hey, it’s Two thousand and mine so things can only get better, right?

The book that I read twice in 2008

I read The color purple for the first time in 2007 and I blogged about it in October last year. My favourite line is “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” — Shug. I read it while on holiday last year and my friend couldn’t understand why I was laughing so much; she couldn’t remember any happiness from the movie. And that’s strange, too: critics accused the movie of being a “Spielbergized” version of the book. I loved both the book and the movie. But the book has a special spot in my heart.

The book that taught me the most in 2008

I think it has to be Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson. I carried it everywhere with me, reading whenever I could. Certain words became stuck in my mind; I learnt the difference between discrete and discreet; I now snicker when someone uses enormity and not enormousness. But I make sure the snicker isn’t audible; the meaning of enormity is changing, after all. Bryson is funny and writes well so I’d read this book every day — pity that my flat mate got hold of it…

The book that I didn’t finish reading in 2008

I gave it so many chances. Seriously. It started in November 2006 when I bought it. I gave it another shot in 2007, I think. And then I gave it another try last month. I even managed to read until page 250 or so. But it’s just not meant to be. Perhaps I’m just not that into Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel. I think it’s time to pass the book along to someone who will appreciate it.

The book that I bought new in 2008

I attended a Michael Stevenson exhibition opening in November 2008 where, after drinking waaaay too much champagne, I bought an art book. Fear of a Black Planet wasn’t expensive but I almost never buy new books; I frequent Cafda in Sea Point. See, I missed Anton Kannemeyer’s exhibition in October so I bought the book to absolve my coloured guilt 😉

The book I didn’t think I’d read *and* finish in 2008

It’s not because it’s a tome, I promise; I just didn’t think I would ever read it. I used to read SciFi and Fantasy books waaaay back when I was in primary school. And then you move on. If you’re a girl. And especially if your mentor gives you Dostoyevsky and Nietszche to read. So I haven’t read much SciFi since I was 13. Anansi Boys was a surprise to me. I found it in my bookshelf and thought ‘Why not’. Instead of buying more books I read something that I already owned. The writing’s not terribly great but I didn’t mind too much: the story kept me going. And I finished it. W00t. It’s a good in-between read.