Not knowing when to stop

Stan Carey’s post about comma splices (some people insist they’re incorrect, and they can cause problems, but often they’re fine) reminded of my own favourite:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

The rhythm is perfect, with the flow of the sentence making the paradox all the more striking for the gentleness of its delivery.

Consider how bad these alternatives would have been:

  • It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
  • It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
  • It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.
  • It was the best of times but it was the worst of times.
  • It was the best of times, and yet it was the worst of times.

The only one there that avoids clumsiness is the one with the full stop, but it still saps the strength of the contrast.

The original really is a perfect splice.

There’s only one problem: this isn’t the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities. Sadly, Dickens got carried away and tried for a grander effect:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Oh, Charles.

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  • pauldanon  On September 26, 2012 at 7:07 am

    It would have been better written as two sentences because it is.

  • Harry Campbell  On September 26, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    I really don’t see what’s wrong with a semi-colon there? Surely better than the full stop. And failing that, definitely between the various splices: “…the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” etc.

  • susan glennis  On September 26, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    I love this! I worked for many years in advertising agencies and did a fair amount of proofing. My feeling was that anything that made copy clearer and as understandable as possible was the way to go. I like the original sentence with the comma but I think the semi-colon is probably OK too.

    So let’s talk about the real sentence and what made me laugh. “Oh, Charles.” Several years ago I was in a Book Club and each member chose a book on a rotating schedule. I kept a book log and had been averaging 60 or 65 books a year for a long time. Not bad since I was working full time and I have a life too. And I read everything – fiction, memoirs, biographies, classics, current commentary, you name it – I love to read. So one of our Book Club members chooses Great Expectations. Not one person in the Book Club finished it in a month, except the woman who had chosen it. And we found out that she had accidentally picked up an abridged version. It took me almost 10 weeks. I suffered through and soldiered on. And when we did discuss the book, I was the only one who had the nerve to say THE MAN NEEDED AN EDITOR!!! No one else was comfortable saying that, Dickens after all, but I have a certain amount of confidence and no problem discussing books. I figure in 56 years I have a lot a reading under my belt. I can tell good writing from bad. Charles Dickens had a great imagination. He could put a story together. But as all good readers know, our friend Mr. Dickens wrote unedited and was paid by the word. Again – EDITOR.

    Oh, Charles. Or should it be – Oh Charles. Nope. That might be more like what you would say if you were having sex with Charles. And that probably wouldn’t have been a good idea. He was most likely way too verbose to get down to business.

  • Jonathon Owen  On September 27, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    Periods between each pair would certainly be an improvement.

  • Tom Freeman  On September 27, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    What, so you guys are trying to pull some kind of ‘different people have validly different tastes in what works best’ scam on me? Sometimes I wonder why I go to all the effort of telling you what the Correct Opinion is…

    But seriously, I wonder if there’s a difference in how we treat punctuation marks when we’re reading. For me, the strength of the original (I just mean the opening pair) lies substantially in the smooth rhythm of the flow from the first half to the second. There needs to be a small pause, but only a small one.

    When I read it in my head, the comma works well to do that. A semicolon, for me, would make too much of a break and a full stop would make it much too staccato. But I guess people read these marks differently.

    (I’ve never actually read Tale of Two Cities. The only Dickens I’ve read is Bleak House. I liked it, but bloody hell some of it was ponderous waffle.)

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