Book Club: Janis Bell’s “Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences”

Janis Bell's Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences: A Guide to Avoiding the Most Common Errors in Grammar and Punctuation is a resource for solving writerly problems. It's meant to sit alongside your computer, ready for action.

Sometimes, Bell's book plays this role perfectly. Her explanation of how tenses change in the subjunctive mood, for example, is incredibly useful. She also breaks down the uses of the primary punctuation marks into helpful categories.

Unfortunately, though, Bell’s guidelines sometimes simplify to the point of distortion. She insists on a firm distinction between “if” and “whether,” for example, even though we sometimes use both to mean the same thing (and nobody gets confused). She also declares: “Periods and commas belong inside closing quotation marks, no matter what. Don’t even think of placing them outside – just tuck them in.”

Many of her readers will be curious: why shouldn’t I place periods and commas outside closing quotes, especially if the punctuation isn’t part of the quote? And wait – don’t they write that way in England? And hang on - don't we put other punctuation marks (colons, semicolons, dashes) outside the quotes?

But these are minor complaints from a grammar-obsessed dude. For the most part, the book does just what it says it will do, offering readers a flashlight and a helping hand when they're lost in dark grammatical woods.