The conundrum over commas
Essay | Punctuation can get in the way of a good time
by Andrée Seu Peterson
Posted on Thursday, May 11, 2017, at 12:52 pm
There are minimalists and there are maximalists in punctuation and that’s OK. Although I could have said: There are minimalists and there are maximalists in punctuation, and that’s OK.
I am emboldened in this new liberation by a book I read on writing: Why Write? The author, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson, has sentences like the following throughout the book:
- “Pascal’s got it right I think.”
- “If any drug was ever concocted for the weary writer it must be wine.”
- “I’ve learned a great deal from my reviews says the magnanimous writer. Hah!”
No commas after “right,” “writer,” and “reviews.”
Yet sometimes Edmundson will do like Sister Claire taught: “When you are isolated in your room, you need something to do.” (Note the comma after “room,” though in the equivalently cantilevered statement above about wine, we sail along with no traffic injunction to pause after the dependent clause.)
This is not willy-nilly. Edmundson knows the deal on points and marks and other typographical conventions. But he also knows that sparse punctuation gives a different feel to writing—a breezy, texty, devil-may-care feel—and this is what he is after in this lighthearted treatment of a serious and potentially depressing subject. (Chapter headings include “To Fail,” “To Drink,” “To Learn to Be Alone.”)
William Zinsser had already conferred permission on my natural wont to kick against the goads when he said, in effect, in On Writing Well, that if some amusing thought comes to you as you sit at the keyboard, take it. Who is the Grammar Commissioner who will not allow? You may strike it from the manuscript later, but then again you may not.
This is liberty.
Even Lynne Truss, obsessive author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, says, “It’s tough being a stickler for punctuation these days. One almost dare not get up in the mornings.” But nevertheless, she admits that there are arguments in high places, not just among the riffraff, over comma placement. You suppose The New Yorker is a bastion of serene unanimity in journalistic nuts and bolts? Think again. In the 1930s, editor Harold Ross and contributor James Thurber came to verbal blows, the latter scorning Ross’ “clarification complex” (i.e., too many commas). Thurber championed the lean, clean look of as few obstructions as possible in the path of the bounding reader’s romp through his novel. He and Mark Edmundson would have enjoyed a beer together.
The point is—and this was a profound shock for me—that punctuation is not written in stone. Punctuation (gulp) is a matter of fashion.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), who literally wrote the book on usage, A Dictionary of the English Language, said:
“The nation moſt likely to continue long without alteration, would be that of a nation raiſed a little, and but a little, above barbarity, ſecluded from ſtrangers. … Men … having only ſuch words as common uſe requires, would perhaps long continue to expreſs the same notions by the ſame ſigns.”
That is to say, language evolves and that’s a good thing. Language cannot be embalmed. (Thankfully, some genius did us a favor and changed long s’s, which look like f’s, to regular s’s.)
What shall we do with this? For instance, Johnson has a comma between “alteration” and “would,” and that goes against everything I’ve ever known to be true in the world. It divides no clauses—indeed, it misleads. When I corrected essays for a summer high school writing course, I would have struck such a comma lustily with my red pen if I came across one (and I often did). Who am I now?
Well, let’s all have a good laugh over the Académie française, those 40 humorless protectors of the French language, and let us hold loosely the pronouncements of The Apostrophe Protection Society, both of whose members doubtless spend too much time worrying that somewhere someone is having fun.
Rather, let the goal be to be read in an orthodontist’s office, I say.
I asked my father what he thought about commas, and without knowing he was expressing a philosophy current among medieval Shakespearian acting schools, he said that any place you want to pause in a sentence should have a comma.
Then he went out to plant tomatoes.
Andrée Seu Peterson
Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. Her commentary has been compiled into three books including Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me. Andrée resides in Philadelphia, Penn.