Clive Thompson writes about the rise of subordinate clauses as complete thoughts in online writing like tweets and Facebook updates. You know, the ones that begin, “When you …” or “That moment when …”:
The point is, it’s up to you imagine the rest of the utterance. It’s like the author is handing you a little puzzle. Subordinate-clause tweets and Yik-Yak postings seduce us into filling out that missing info, McCulloch says. “Our brain has to work a little bit harder to figure out what it’s referring to, and so making that connection is very satisfying. It’s like getting a joke. You have to draw that connection for yourself a little bit — but because you can do it, it works really well.”
It’s not just a clever turn of phrase or a puzzle, either. It helps your readers identify with you (“Yes, I know just how you feel when that happens!”), it gets right to the point (useful for those 140-character witticisms), and perhaps most exciting, it paves the way for language change. Innovation can happen anywhere we’re experimenting and playing with language.
Read more: That Way We’re All Writing Now
In my past professional life, I was a translator. Instead of struggling to get my own ideas onto paper, I spent all day reading others’ ideas and crafting them into what (hopefully) sounded like a piece of text originally written in English. I searched for just the right word, just the right phrase, … just the right comma placement.
When this piece, written by Mary Norris — a “Comma Queen” at The New Yorker — came to me via Longreads, I felt I had met a kindred spirit. (Indeed, I used to fantasize about giving up translation and trying my hand at copyediting.) I still remember rereading my translations and questioning my own sanity:
It was enough to make me doubt my comma sense. Some days, “thin and burgundy” sounded just fine. At work, coming to the phrase “a stout, middle-aged woman,” I automatically started to pluck the comma out and then became unsure. “Stout and middle-aged”? I don’t think so. “Middle-aged and stout”? Definitely not. Wasn’t it the same as “a fat old lady”? “Fat and old”? “Old and fat”? An old fat lady? “An old fat lady” suggests that the fat lady in the circus is being hounded out of her job by an ambitious new fat lady, at which point she will become just another fat old lady. I was driving myself mad.
Read the full essay, “Holy Writ,” in The New Yorker.
The barn looms over me, peeling red paint on worn slats of wood. I have to reach up to pull open the door, and it rattles as I step up from the grass into the barn. The earthy smell of hay wafts toward me as my eyes adjust to the dim light flecked with dust. To my left a wall rises upwards and to the right stand long-empty horse stalls. I pass the stalls and come into the cavernous, open barn. The ceiling is flying over my head, unreachable, with a cable running along the highest beam and out the small square window at the end. My dad tells me they used to use that cable to haul bales of hay into the barn.
To my left a giant door opens to the barnyard, and beyond that stretch the fields of corn and soybeans that the neighbors farm for us now. I’m reminded of the pictures I’ve seen of someone standing in a beach house staring out at the ocean, but Iowa is my ocean and the wind makes rippling waves across the corn tassels.
Hanging in the center of the room, strung on a rope that somehow loops over that highest beam at the very top of the ceiling, is a bag full of hay. The hay swing. Halfway across the room the beams and rafters make a sort of H shape, and bales of hay stack one on top of each other, piling themselves into a staircase to reach the H’s crossbeam. A wire strung up from one side of the barn to another works as a makeshift railing, a handhold while walking across the beam.
And from there, if someone throws me the swing, I can grab hold of it and jump. Arc high into the dusty air toward the horse stalls, and then swoop back toward the open door and blue sky. I look down at the swirls of dirt on the wood floor, up at my cousins lined up along the beam waiting their turn, and back out at the door. I imagine swooping toward that door with so much force I fly right out, soaring over those rolling hills and golden fields to whatever lies beyond. To the other side of the ocean.
I recently saw this TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, called “The Danger of a Single Story.” She tells about her journey as a writer, and how she was so strongly influenced as a child by the single perspective told in the books she read:
“I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading. All my characters were white and blue-eyed. They played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now this, despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria, had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather because we didn’t need to.”
I think one of the wonders of the internet is how many stories, how many voices are out there. Because of my background in anthropology, I have read countless stories about the lives of people in foreign, far-away places. But at the same time, I grew up without very much diversity represented in the fiction I read — thank goodness for science fiction and authors like Ursula K. Le Guin for introducing stories about entirely foreign cultures and culture contact. The stories we read, and the stories we tell ourselves and each other, really do matter.