As it falls
Only a proof of the splendour

How even punctuation can be about music

Okay, so in a loose, anecdotal, bloggy sort of way we've tackled how unpicking what you're doing in terms of grammar and syntax might help you to say what you're trying to say better, and also the different effects of past and present tense, and the value of learning to handle long sentences. Today's thinking aloud is about how a minute query about punctuation opens up an exploration of what you're trying to say. Here's a sentence from my work in progress:

And yet even the most self-hating Papist wife or joylessly Puritan husband knows that it is not so: that the nature of a man and a woman's coupling depends utterly on the nature of that man and that woman, each with his uncertainties, vanities, pride justified and pride false.

The simple question is: should there also be a possessive apostrophe on the first "man"?

Technically, as they're separate nouns, each of them should have their own possessive 's: the nature of a man's and a woman's coupling depends... because the coupling is 'of' each of them, even though "coupling" is singular.

Most people, including me (I know because I've tried it out in the WriteWords forum), feel that it's more euphonious as I originally had it, without the first 's: ...the nature of a man and a woman's coupling depends... We hear "a-man-and-a-woman" as a unit, jointly rather than singly possessing the singular noun. Similarly, someone on the forum pointed out, you would naturally say "We found a man's and a woman's fingerprints", but "We went to Tom and Anna's house."

One solution, when the correct way seems wrong and the right way is incorrect, is to re-phrase. But that brings its own problems: that the nature of the coupling of a man and a woman... is a bit awkward. So we were just agreeing that probably my original instincts had been right, when someone suggested cutting the second "a", to make them even more of a single unit: that the nature of a man and woman's coupling... Which on the grounds of sound-balance as well as logic means that you should also cut the second "that": depends utterly on the nature of that man and woman... So I tried to remember why I had given them each their own "a" and "that". I know I wrote both, cut one, restored it, but I don't remember thinking about it, just listening to the voice in my head saying "this way - that way? - no, this way". So why this way?

First, the subject: the point of the sentence is that each coupling is different because the two are wholly separate. They're not really a unit, in other words, especially by the end: with that man and that woman, each with his uncertainties... (I hate using "his" for "each", but "their" sounds modern, even though you can find it at the date.)

Second: sound (or music, as this excellent post by Sally Zigmond puts it): "a man and a woman" has slant rhymes echoing around in it, and it also has a rhythm which is just strong enough to catch the ear a little, rather as "seeking and finding" does here, in that post on grammar. Catching the ear - provided it's a sing not a squawk - brings words alive for the reader.

Third: period voice. In ordinary talk, most of us would say, "I saw a man and woman having sex". But this isn't ordinary talk, it's a first-person narrator in 1714. One thing I noticed in researching the voice for The Mathematics of Love is how 18th century prose is always full of balances and antitheses, from Defoe via Fielding to Austen, and truest of all of the foundation of so much writing, the Book of Common Prayer. One of the skills (tricks?) of historical fiction is to evoke a sense of otherness - that this is not Now, but Then - while not actually making the book harder work than your kind of reader expects, and this kind of thing, as well as the slightly non-contemporary phrasing, does just that.

Fourth: character-in-action, which of course embodies the preceding three reasons. This narrator's take on humankind is one of rueful amusement, and she is ... well, if I told you you won't buy the book, but just now she's in a state of tristesse, shall we say: thoughts ranging free, a little magniloquently, definitely not workaday or energetic.

And "pride justified and pride false" embodies all these techniques: 1) an antithesis, 2) music 3) period flavour in both language and syntax and 4) even-handed to suit the character. So it isn't an accident that it's the concluding phrase of the sentence.

If you're bored to tears by a whole blog post debating the presence of one apostrophe and one indefinite article, I'm sorry. No I'm not. Goodness knows we'd all go mad if we thought things out at this level for every sentence of every novel: as here, usually one's instincts turn out to be right, so you don't have to. It was only a small matter of correctness which made me submit it to the bar of forum opinion. But I do think this kind of debate shows why grammar and punctuation and syntax matter. Not because there are rules and you look ignorant if you get them wrong (though there are and you do); that's dull, though necessary. It's because trying to work out how to get it right, in terms of grammar/punctuation/syntax, connects these things to what you're really trying to say. And the more data that flows to and fro along those connections, the more easily and naturally what you're trying to say will land on the page in a form which means everyone else will read what you're really saying. Though come to think of it, I am tempted to put an "own" before "uncertainties"...