The Advancement of Grammar

We forget at times that the technological revolution is being mirrored and matched in things like grammar.

Two hundred years ago, most dialogue was in huge blocks. Individual speakers were stuffed together, one after another, in single paragraphs. Dickens, admittedly writing for the paycheck, put each speaker in their own paragraph, and now this is so common that doing it any other way strikes us as odd. It’s much, much, much easier to read.

But it’s new!

Lines between paragraphs are new!

Long paragraphs are fine when called for. If Adam enters the scene wearing something peculiar, and we need a two-page paragraph of description, that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But if the writer prefers to frontload a little scene setting so that later the scene can go unbothered, that frontload can usually be broken up into a bunch of little chunks. Give me a paragraph on the room layout, a paragraph on the furniture, one on where the people are sitting, and one on the view out the window. If the author thinks they need all that, go right ahead. But the breaking-up of huge text-walls into smaller features is an improvement.

I’ve been reading Mallory, and the story is better than I recall. The general flow of the writing consists of text boulders filled with heterogeneous dialogue intrusions. You would never confuse it with a modern retelling. Manutius’s invention of the comma has been mirrored by improvements in things like indentations and spacing, and these are real, significant improvements.