Monday, June 15, 2015

A New Mark of Punctuation (sort of)...

how to continue our TeachingAuthors  Punctuation theme while following Bobbi Miller’s most illuminating “For the Love of Commas” post last Monday?

I considered showcasing one of my favorite books (Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s EXCLAMATION MARK!, seemingly punctuation-themed or not),
interviewing University of Chicago Press editor Carol Saller (author of THE SUBVERSIVE COPYEDITOR)
and reviewing New Yorker editor Mary Norris’ BETWEEN YOU AND ME: CONFESSIONS OF A COMMA QUEEN. 

[Please note: In the above sentence I proudly reveal my Medicare-eligibility by honoring Strunk and White’s Elements of Style rule that states that “in a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.” It’s hard to teach an Old Dog New Tricks.]

I was heavily leaning toward sharing EXCLAMATION MARK! – a. because this particular punctuation mark and I have a whole lot in common, spirit-wise, and b. the front book blurb so speaks to me  “…we all have an inner exclamation mark. The question is, how to find it…”

But then, while reading Hannah Pittard’s beautifully-written all-absorbing novel REUNION which features a most engaging heart-grabbing dysfunctional family, I came upon a scene in which the character Kate Pulaski who teaches script-writing speaks a word the author acknowledges in her closing she found in a NY Times Ann Beattie article “Me and Mrs. Nixon” – a literary term I’d never seen or heard before! 

The word? 

     “I talked to Elliot about this on the plane,” she says.
     “Irmus,” I say.
     “Irmus,” I say.  “When you reveal the meaning at the end.”
     “What are you talking about?”
     …..”You said, ‘I talked to Elliot about this on the plane,’ but you haven’t yet said what this is. Presumably you are now going to define ‘this.’”
     “Do your students have any idea what you’re talking about?”
     “No,” I say.  “Nope. Not a word.”

I quickly marked my place in the novel to check the word’s official definition.
To my surprise, my Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary did not include an entry for irmus.
Upon Googling “irmus,” I came upon Chris Bonney and her October 25, 2011 post “A New Word.” (Apparently Hannah Pittard was not the only one who’d read Ann Beattie’s NY Times article “Me and Mrs. Nixon" and taken notice of this unusual word.)
Bonney wrote that according to the BOOK OF LITERARY TERMS, an irmus describes the phenomenon in which “not until the end of a passage does the reader fully understand what is being spoken of.”
She herself described irmus as “the periodic sentence, characterized by the suspension of the completion of sense until its end.”
In other words, an irmus acts like a punctuation mark, giving meaning and punch, emphasis and force, to the sentences that preceded it.

Or so I've told myself so I could share this term with you and hopefully give your day some punch. ;)

Personally, I feel so much more alive when a heretofore unknown word which surprisingly has relevance in my writer’s life takes residence on my brain’s Hard Drive.

I hope the same is true for you.

Esther Hershenhorn


michelle kogan said...

Hi Esther, what fun a new word! Irmus has a Latin ring to it. Perhaps with the evolution of a painting when completed, one could say irmus! Thanks.

JoAnn Early Macken said...

Thank you, Esther! I always appreciate learning useful new terms--especially relevant ones--and this one fits right in!

Bobbi Miller said...

An irmus! I love LOVE love this!! What a delightful read! Thank you!

April Halprin Wayland said...

Fascinating, Esther! And because of the event which changed my life today I am interested in the definition of irmus...the event was, of course, that I grew another leg.

Never mind...I was trying to write one.

But I found a better example:

"Here is the example of 'irmus' in the novel itself:
A chilly tickle, the cold of ice cubes within ice cubes—my ankle, touched by his big toe.

This is an example of irmus.
Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life - Page 246"

I found that here:

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Yes, Michelle: I like how you likened "Finis!" to "irmus!" because it's not until we've completed a work that we realize what we're saying.
Thanks, JoAnn and Bobbi, too, for taking the time to share your liking of this post - and April - for going the distance to find the usage in the Mrs. Nixon novel I COULDN'T! :)

jan godown annino said...

Appreciations Esther -I have begun to learn a literary word today with this. It will be fun to look for/recall uses of it. All the comments are a reflecting of what an interesting post this is. For fun my Google image search for the term came up with some interesting links. Her is the url

Teaching Authors is such a great site to visit.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thanks, Jan, for going the distance in tracking down more about that unique word/term "IRMUS."
I love the town names and references.
When I first came upon the word, I thought it might be the child of the long-ago tv show "I Love Irma" and today's "Imus in the Morning." :)