Being Published Part 1: The Contract
Being Published Part 2: Editing

Prepositions and Syncopations: even short sentences need wrangling

I've blogged before about the pleasures and opportunities to be found in long sentences, and how to think about the order you put their elements in. I've talked about my own wrangling of a shortish sentence; I've even sat down and worked out just how many versions of a single sentence I can actually find.

And still, the other day, I found myself asking this of a group of writer-friends:

Minor rhythm question. Which works best?

  1. I pulled my cap down and turned my collar up.
  2. I pulled my cap down and turned up my collar. 
  3. I pulled down my cap and turned up my collar. 
  4. I pulled down my cap and turned my collar up.

More people liked the fourth than any other, but there was strong support for the first one too. 

Then novelist Louse Cole said, "Second for me. The musicality is better and it's not a self-conscious parallel."

Prose-writer and writing-blogger April Doyle, who teaches creative writing at Canterbury Christ Church University, said, "On its own I like the way the sentence starts with up and ends with down, feels tidier, but if you end with up it sort of launches into the next sentence, which might work much better."

Poet Irene Cunningham said, "I like up on the end. It has a final feel to it, almost onomatopoeic because you can feel the shrug of the shoulders." Which is exactly one of the reasons I love poets' input into prose, and why I'm always telling prose-writers to take poetry courses.

Crime novelist Margaret Kirk pointed out that some might worry about the "rule" about not ending a sentence with a preposition, and that made me remember the "rule" about not separating the two parts of a phrasal verb. But I'm pretty sure that "up" and "down" here are in the grey area where a preposition (modifiying a noun) may be acting as an adverb (modifying a verb), so let's just say that both of those "rules" are a load of nonsense up with which we will not put, and move on. 

Then April suggested switching the whole thing round. So I had four more possibilities: 

  1. I turned my collar up and pulled my cap down. 
  2. I turned my collar up and pulled down my cap.
  3. I turned up my collar and pulled my cap down. 
  4. I turned my collar up and pulled down my cap.

And I realised, among other things:

  • It's all about rhythm. I'll spare you the fully marked-up stress-pattern thing, but briefly: when do you want a clear repeating beat - "my cap down / my collar up" - and when do you want syncopate over the top of the beat: "my collar up / down my cap"?
  • It's also about sound, and where the half-rhymes stand relative to each other: I/my, coll-/pull-, up/cap, pulled/turned. 
  • The obvious choice of ending is between a noun and a preposition/adverb. But although "collar" and "cap" are both nouns, one gives a stressed, and one an un-stressed ending. One reason that poets spend so much time on lineation is that in English the ending of a phrase, or a line, is where it stores its power. (n.b. my first version of this point ended with "so often where the power of it is stored". Which do you think is better?) 
  • As April says, the choice of ending also affects how we launch into the next phrase.
  • More generally, no sentence exists in isolation. So much depends on what has just been in our ears, and what will come next - and I do mean ears. The story and logic of these versions are all identical, and they all conform to the rules of grammar, punctuation and syntax. What's at stake here is your decision about the silent sounds of prose on the page. 
  • It might also be about voice; here, it's relatively neutral, but which would your narrator say?

So, what did I do? This is how it ended up. 

By now it was almost dark, but in any village there is still the vigilant widow, the assiduous sexton, the old man bored enough to relish making trouble, and they all knew me. I pulled down my cap and turned up my collar.

The walk had been nothing to me in the old days, but I was tired and footsore as I reached Christopher's door and put my hand to the knocker. And what if the Capuchins heard I was back? 

And, yes, it does make a difference that there's a paragraph break after the sentence in question. Mind you, if you asked me how it ended up like that, I can't tell you. True, I love thinking about technique, and dredging our intutive decisions up to make them ... is "tuitive" a word? But my choice in this case wasn't a conscious, reasoned one - "thinking slow", in Daniel Kahneman's formulation. It was "thinking fast": all I was conscious of was that it just felt right.

Sure, if I analyse why it ended up like that, I could say that I liked the tired plod of the regular beat being repeated in the second, identically-structured phrase. And I like even more the unstressed ending on "collar", which is suddenly a little irregular and uncertain, and seems right for someone who is tired and nervous. But those would be analyses after the event. As I said of writing formal commentaries for creative writing courses, writing about an act of writing is often a matter of extrapolating backwards, and attempting "a coherent account of what is an often incoherent and mysterious process of creation."

But, a final thought: I probably spent a good (in both senses) hour on these ten words, had an excellent discussion with some of my best writer friends, and have jumped what I hope is a useful and thought-provoking blogpost off them. However, you won't find them in any book that I have or will publish: that whole scene got cut, in the interests of the novel as a whole. Spending all that time, you might say, was a mistake. But as I've said before, creative work is inherently wasteful. Indeed, as Grayson Perry would say, creativity is mistakes.