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VOL. 129 | NO. 197 | Thursday, October 9, 2014

Vic Fleming

On Faulkner and the Use of Punctuation

By Vic Fleming

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Regarding the recent Faulkner column, Tracy writes that she got “a solid feel for the place and the time of year. Thank you for not honoring your subject by writing paragraph-long sentences with intricate layers of subordination.”

And then there’s Becca, whose college class on Faulkner took a field trip to Rowan Oak. “Reading your column,” she writes, “brought back memories of that trip. I remember feeling strange when I looked into the room that he supposedly wrote this or that novel in. I was struck by the numerous guns adorning the walls, and just the serenity quaking in the whole place. Well, you captured it perfectly for me.”

Having vowed to reread Faulkner, I checked the Puzzle Factory library. After relocating the “French-English Dictionary” from “Fiction” to “Reference,” I saw that the Faulkner selections were “Absalom, Absalom,” “Go Down Moses,” “The Reivers,” “Sanctuary,” and “The Sound and the Fury.” Why not proceed alphabetically? I thought.

“Absalom, Absalom” begins with a 122-word sentence that contains only one comma. To quote it in full would blow my column’s word-limitation, so here’s a clause to make a point: “From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat ….”

Point: There’s no per-se need for a comma after an 18-word prepositional phrase.

The rule I was taught, in high school and before, was “Use a comma after a prepositional phrase only to avoid confusion. If unclear, assume confusion at about the seven-word mark.” Or something like that. I had to unlearn this rule in law school, where the powers that be insisted on commas after “In Roe v. Wade” and analogous phrases that populate casebooks.

Spoiler alert: The balance of the column will disclose a key answer in this week’s I Swear Crossword. (Okay, so that’s also a promo for the puzzle.)

In a 179-word sentence introducing Charles Bon, midway into chapter III, Faulkner says he was “a man with an ease of manner and a swaggering gallant air in comparison with which Sutpen’s pompous arrogance was clumsy bluff and Henry actually a hobble-de-hoy.” Modern dictionaries don’t hyphenate the last word of that sentence. A hobbledehoy is an awkward and gawky adolescent boy.

“Wordnik” offers some examples of hobbledehoy’s use, one of which reached out and grabbed me. In “Savvy,” Ingrid Law writes, “When Grandpa wasn’t a grandpa and was just instead a small-fry, hobbledehoy boy blowing out thirteen dripping candles on a lopsided cake, his savvy hit him hard and sudden — just like it did to Fish that day of the backyard birthday party and the hurricane — and the entire state of Idaho got made.”

I’d not heard of Ingrid Law before. Now I want to read both of her books, “Savvy” and “Scumble.” No, I’m not dissuaded that they’re children’s fantasy novels. If she’s using words like scumble and hobbledehoy, she’s expecting an adult audience to look in on things.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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