Along with a tendency to have strong opinions about the Oxford comma, working as a professional editor means that I tend to find errors in texts even when I’m off duty.[*] However, there are moments when discovering instances of inaccuracy places me in the position of a sleuth. When I’m reading fiction or poetry, I sometimes find what initially looks likes an overlooked error (eg, missing spaces, unusual line breaks, nonstandard spelling) that forms a pattern. And patterns in writing signal intent on the writer’s part.
So, why deliberately add what reads superficially as a mistake? Ignoring writers with idiosyncratic preferences,[†] violating the conventions of written language—more properly called its orthography[‡]—usually isn’t done to make proofreaders, betas, and grammar pickers twitch. Rather, it represents an artistic approach to drawing the readers’ attention to the text. Considering orthography encompasses spelling, punctuation, emphasis, and so forth, writers can play with written form in numerous ways. While I cannot document all these approaches, I’ll provide several examples where writers ignore conventional usages from the aforementioned categories as well as explain why they did so.
Nonstandard Spelling and Punctuation
Of course, nonstandard spelling and punctuation are the two categories where we’re most likely to assume the author introduced a typo versus deliberately chose incorrect usage. I certainly thought this was the case when I noticed the first instance where quotation marks that usually denote dialogue were absent in The Snow Child. Eowyn Ivey’s novel is based on the Russian folktale, Sneugurochka. In this tale, a childless couple build a child from snow that magically transforms into a real child. Ivey’s novel differs from the source material in that the story points to two possible origins for Faina, one magical and one more mundane. Once I realized that the “error” in Ivey’s novel recurred only when the dialogue involved Faina, I correctly suspected that Ivey eliminated the quotation marks to subtly call our attention to the uncertainty surrounding Faina’s true nature.
However, unconventional orthography isn’t always so subtle as absent punctuation. Perhaps the most recognizable—and potentially controversial—form of unconventional orthography occurs when a writer decides to reproduce dialect by spelling by how the word sounds (also called pronunciation respelling). As Jennifer Sommer observes, dialect adds a level of authenticity.[§] Used respectfully, it can identify where a character is from or help establish the setting (eg, “y’all” suggests the southern United States). In contrast, other uses of nonstandard spelling can be thought provoking. Throughout Beloved, Toni Morrison spells words such as “whitelady”, “coloredfolk”, and “blackman” without a space between the person(s) and their race. Beloved focuses on the pervasive damage slavery inflicted on former black slaves and how it destroys their sense of personhood. With the mere deletion of a space, Morrison points out how (even today) we view people through the lens of racial identity versus their individuality.
Emphasis (eg, bold, italics, underline, small caps, capitalization) in written language serves the purpose of drawing attention to the text, and it’s strikingly similar to the goal writers have when they use emphasis unconventionally. However, the quintessential difference lies in why emphasis is being employed. Traditional use of emphasis works something like a helpful signpost as we travel through a text. All capital letters appear when we read headlines or warnings, boldface titles mark the start of a new section, a capital letter starts a sentence, italics let us know that phrase isn’t misspelled but comes from another language, and so forth. They point to transitions and notify us when we need to observe something more carefully.
Unconventional usage of emphasis, however, asks the readers to pay attention to the text’s content. Conventionally, the pronoun “I” is always capitalized. E. E. Cummings chose to forgo this formality in his poem, “i like my body when it’s with your”, a tactic that immerses the reader into an intimate environment where a lover engages in pillow talk. While there are moments when unconventional emphasis points to a transition, such instances tend to make us focus more carefully on the text. Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian (trans. Deborah Smith) contains a chunk of italicized text that interrupts the narrative of that section’s primary narrator (Mr. Cheong) and switches to another character’s dream (his wife, Yeong-hye). But italics signal more than this transition.[††] Yeong-hye, as I noted elsewhere, is nearly unknowable character in a story about her mental illness, partly because she does not serve as one of the primary narrators. This passage and other, increasingly shorter disjointed statements (also italicized) provide a nebulous insight into her deteriorating mental state, but the reader never finds a definitive reason as to why her sanity falters.
Providing an overarching reason as to why writers decide to ignore conventional orthography is difficult because these decisions serve multiple purposes, whether the writer asks the reader to lean in and hear how people speak or whether they challenge us to think about race and mental health. What these examples have in common, though, is that authors use these techniques to stimulate their readers’ curiosity. The result is that the reader becomes an active participant in their reading, following the clues that inform the text. As such, discarding conventions such as these provides writers with another means by which they engage their readers.
[*] Consider it an occupational hazard that makes reading menus rather unpleasant.
[†] Kurt Vonnegut’s distaste for semicolons comes to mind.
[‡] Colloquially speaking, we’d call this grammar. But since we’re looking at general rules for how language appears on the page, I’m going to stick with the fustier term.
[§] Sommer’s article focuses mostly on objections to dialect, but there are examples illustrating sensitive uses of dialect.
[**] On the topic of how emphasis conveys speech, I considered mentioning that all caps is the visual equivalent of shouting, but it’s become quite common in the post-Internet era. Arguably, using all caps to depict shouting could be considered common enough to be a convention.
[††] Eowyn Ivey uses italics to offset correspondence (ie, note a narrative transition) in The Snow Child, but this strikes me as an unnecessary flourish as the use of letter formatting adequately conveys this information.