Noun Trouble

Written English bristles with subtle traps that can snare the unwary. If you know the difference between an appositive and a noun of address, raise your hand.

I wasn’t sure I would go on re-reading Roger Zelazny’s Amber epic, but at the end of book two the plot started looking up, so I’ve dived into book three, Sign of the Unicorn. At the end of chapter 1, Corwin (the first-person narrator of the story) has asked his brother Random to explain something. Chapter 2 begins like this:

While sex heads a great number of lists, we all have other things we like to do in between. With me, Corwin, it’s drumming, being up in the air, and gambling….

The question, for those who are keeping score at home, is, what sort of thing is “me, Corwin” here? Granted, chapter 1 ends, “Then he [Random] remembered out loud.” This is an implied dialog tag for the narrative that begins on the next page. But I misread the next page. I read “Corwin” as an appositive — a noun that further clarifies a previous noun or pronoun. That is, I misread “me, Corwin” as indicating that the first-person narrative in chapter 2 was still in Corwin’s voice.

I was wrong, of course. It’s a noun of address. Random is addressing Corwin by name.

Putting all of chapter 2 into quotation marks would have been quite horrible; Zelazny was right to omit them. The problem is, he put the noun of address in an ambiguous location. He should have written, “While sex heads a great number of lists, Corwin, we all have other things we like to do….” That would have made “Corwin” unambiguously a noun of address and the narrator unambiguously Random.

Six pages flowed past before I realized I was reading a statement from Random, not a continuation of Corwin’s narrative. Now, you can be forgiven for thinking I was being dumb. I was being dumb. In my defense, Sign of the Unicorn begins, not too many pages before this, with a narrative jump. A week has passed since the end of book two. Things in Amber are in a rather different state. And Corwin has been the narrator consistently throughout the first two books. So an appositive at that point could have been a way of reassuring the reader that Corwin is now digressing and will shortly bring Random back into the narrative.

The point is this: Every writer needs to be painstakingly aware of how sentences can be misread. It may be perfectly clear to you what you meant, but putting yourself in the reader’s unwary point of view is essential. Pronoun antecedents are the most obvious example of why this is necessary, but Zelazny found another one.

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