Did that sound convincingly casual? Did I successfully mask my awe about getting to talk to a comedian I’ve admired for years?
No? That’s okay. I can admit it: I’m dazzled and resorting to name-dropping. But in the process I can also pass on a bit of information that you might find interesting.
It started last night when -- thrill of thrills -- I was one of the authors on a panel with Poundstone, comedian Robert Schimmel and authors Dan Kennedy and Beth Lisick (all of whom were hilarious, by the way). It was an event for Friends of Libraries USA and was part of the American Library Assn.’s annual conference at the Anaheim Convention Center.
Afterward there was a book signing. Once I finished signing copies of Mortal Syntax, I joined the line of people waiting for Poundstone to sign copies of her book, There’s Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say. She was so gracious -- chatting up the people in line and dipping into a seemingly bottomless font of funny stories.
When I got to the front of the line, she told me a little about her struggles to help assure that her kids get a good education -- especially when it comes to grammar and punctuation. It’s an even tougher struggle than you might guess. Poundstone told me that, a while back, she had been talking to one of her kids’ teachers and she mentioned that she would like her kids to have a good grasp of how to use the comma. The teacher, according to Poundstone, said (and I paraphrase): “I don’t teach them about commas. Commas are going to be obsolete soon.”
I paused. Did this teacher know something I didn’t? Was he privy to some cutting-edge research demonstrating that the comma is melting away like the polar ice caps? (Self-doubt is my default response in these situations, by the way. You could tell me, “Did you know your middle name isn’t really Margaret? It’s Beelzebub,” and my first impulse would be to check my birth certificate.)
It was the kind of statement that could easily put grammar-minded people like you and me on the knee-jerk defensive. “No way, man! The comma lives!” So in this case I’m pleased that I seriously weighed the idea before deciding that the teacher was, more likely than not, full of crap.
Yes, commas are largely ignored in school kids’ text messages. Yes, this could change how and when they’re used. But, like grammar in general, commas arose out of their usefulness. To pilfer an example from “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” consider the difference between:
Woman. Without her, man is nothing.
Woman without her man is nothing.
I think the comma will survive. If I’m wrong, that’s okay, too. It will just mean that we found some other way make ourselves understood. Until then, I’ll just be happy that no commas are required in the sentence:
Teachers who talk out their backsides should consider other careers.