Subtraction Distraction by Sheila Deeth

The trouble with being a mathematician is you like things to make sense. So spelling’s supposed to be logical. Grammar should have simple rules. Punctuation should be more than vaguely undefined measurement. And what should a mathematician do when tasked with producing an anthology for a local writing group?

The trouble with literary rules is everyone reads and writes them a different way. Some authors never use quotation marks. They get away with it, a) because they’re famous, and b) because they’re consistent. The reader turns the pages and soon works out how those sentences should sound. But when everyone in the anthology uses a different set of rules, the reader ends up with unmeasurably ill-defined noises from each page all demanding to be properly understood. So what’s a mathematician to do?

I got together with my fellow volunteers. We pondered whether ellipses should have spaces before and after. What about m-dashes? Should we get rid of straight quotes and replace them with curly ones. And could we make a cheat-sheet of simple editing instructions? All went well and the cheat sheet’s only one page long. Then we came to that vexing question of usage: m-dash or ellipsis; how, when and where?

Some web-pages told us ellipses are used in dialog; m-dashes in prose. Others said ellipses are for trailing dialog; m-dashes for interruptions. Still others insisted ellipses be used whenever a sentence was incomplete. But I’m a mathematician, and we needed a rule.

In the end, we came up with something moderately mathematical. The ellipsis, we said, is for missing words, whether forgotten, unspoken, left out, interrupted, or just too many to quote. M-dashes are for extra words, where one sentence is inserted inside another, where brackets might be used, where intersecting ideas overlap. It sounded good, but what do we do with this?

“My child… my baby… my heart…” the poor mother cried.

Are the thoughts interrupted, intersected, incomplete, or all three. (Our best suggestion was to capitalize the ms, making three incomplete sentences with ellipses to cover the missing words.)

Then there’s this, from my upcoming novel, Subtraction. A math teacher prepares to treat his students to burgers and fries while pondering “Who am I?”

Voices from the past ushered a host of memories into Andrew’s mind. Amelia was the girl long gone, child of a house whose antique, ticking clock kept perfect time. Amelia was lost under green of trees and the pricking of tangled branches of a place called Paradise—Amelia, Andrew’s parents, Carl… all subtracted like numbers from Andrew’s page. He let his gaze drift to the window, hoping the sky’s bright tones would wash his palette clean again. But who-am-I doubts combined with the whispering of leaves and chatter of children. He couldn’t forget. That long slow walk between Tom’s desk and the classroom door could take a lifetime, waiting for delivery’s knock.

The m-dash leads on from a completed sentence, I guess. And the ellipsis ends a list with names left out; but I’m not sure. Does it look odd to you? Should we add another rule that no sentence include both?

Meanwhile, being a Harry Potter fan as well as a mathematician, I just happened to be reading my (American) copy of The Cursed Child and comparing it with my son’s (English) copy. So there it was, in black and white… a sentence which used ellipses in one edition was punctuated by a comma and an m-dash in the other! Help!

Alas, the trouble with being a mathematician isn’t just that you like things to make sense. You like the rules to be simple and clean as well, with no exceptions please…

i before e except after c? No wonder I always hated spelling.

Sheila Deeth (with an e before the i) is a mathematician and a writer. Her Mathemafiction series of novels is published by Indigo Sea. Divide by Zero and Infinite Sum have already been released, and Subtraction is coming soon. She’s currently working on the fourth book, Imaginary Numbers, and promises to be moderately logical with her punctuation.



Filed under musings, Sheila Deeth, writing

3 responses to “Subtraction Distraction by Sheila Deeth

  1. I agree, wouldn’t it be great if only one rule applied to each type of punctuation.

  2. I agree with you, the rules should be simple but I admit that I like to be creative with punctuation.

  3. Sheila, I certainly know your frustration! My original editor told me to go by the University of Chicago’s Manual of Style and Strunk’s Elements of Style for writing that would be submitted to any New York publisher. I found those books usually covered any questions I had and helped me a lot. Good post! Good luck!

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