Grammar Questions

Early in his career, English footballer Michael Owen celebrated goals by rubbing his hands together in a joyous “Goody! Goody! Goody!” show of enthusiasm. Book lovers feel something similar when learning of a book that captures their imagination and produces a swell of anticipation that is almost inevitably more expansive than whatever pleasures the book has in store.

I felt such a surge after reading reviews for a collection of stories by Lydia Davis, an author whose works I was unfamiliar with. I particularly enjoy short stories, and she is a short story writer of much acclaim, as evidenced by the following praise for The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis:

“A body of work probably unique in American writing . . . I suspect that The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis will in time be seen as one of the great, strange American literary contributions” (James Wood, The New Yorker).

“Magnificent . . . Davis has made one of the great books in recent literature, equal parts horse sense and heartache” (Dan Chiasson, The New York Review of Books).

One of the reviews for the collection mentioned the story “Grammar Questions,” in which the narrator, whose father is dying, employs a kind of grammatical logic to explore her emotional landscape. A father of two wonderful children, I have a disastrous relationship with my own father, so I am drawn to stories of fathers for two very different reasons. (Not surprisingly, I was greatly affected by both the father-and-son relationship in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the fatherly role Wolgast establishes with Amy in Justin Cronin’s The Passage.)

And the story involves grammar. Goody! Goody! Goody!

“Grammar Questions” is a damn good story, and I would recommend exploring Lydia Davis’s work. In addition to being a finely wrought contemplation of death, the story provides numerous examples of the proper use of punctuation with quotation marks. At the end of a sentence, a question mark or exclamation point goes inside the quotation marks if it applies to the quoted material. The mark goes outside the quotation marks if it applies to the sentence as a whole.

Look at the following examples from the story:

Now, during the time he is dying, can I say, “This is where he lives”?


If someone asks me, “Where does he live?” should I answer, “Well, right now he is not living, he is dying”?

Style Note: Titles of novels, albums, and collections, such as The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, are generally set in italics. Short stories, poems, and songs are generally enclosed by quotation marks.

Leave a Comment