Monday, June 30, 2008


So I was talking to Paula Poundstone last night about commas …

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.


Joel said...

Yeah, that was too casual. ;-) I'm jealous, but you've earned it and you're entitled to a little name dropping. Hey, since you're buds with Paula, can we expect to hear you in the "Not My Job" segment of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me"?

I took a writing class a few months back at my present job (it's cool that they offer such a class, but I'm disappointed that we have no style guide which, I think, an organization our size needs) and one of the things that kept tripping up most of us was that, according to our instructor, commas aren't necessary as often as we think they are. This was particularly a problem, as far as I could tell (but, of course, I'm biased), for those of us with an above-average grasp of grammar. Actually, she might have made that observation herself.

Here are a few key points I remember from her guidance (not about commas generally but with regard to their changing frequency):

. . . commas aren't meant to indicate pauses
. . . short introductory phrases less than five words (e.g., "After we all screamed") don't need commas
. . . more commas are appropriate--or at least acceptable--in academic writing than in business
. . . the declining use of the comma is perceived to be a function of economy; every comma takes up valuable space :Joel rolls eyes:
. . . ironically, a comma is required before the conjunction in a final item of a list (where I had always been taught it should be omitted); apparently this has something to do with legal clarity

It more-or-less makes sense, but I'm still a bit suspicious and on some points quite unconvinced. The fallout for me is that my comma use has become increasingly erratic, whereas before it was more consistent, even if, by contemporary standards, excessive. Indeed, I suspect I've made several comma errors in this comment (not that there are no other grammar errors; I'm sure there are plenty of all sorts).

But our grammarian didn't go so far as to suggest that commas are becoming obsolete, just that their population has declined. What you said about the teacher.

June Casagrande said...

* ". . . commas aren't meant to indicate pauses"

Huh? This is one of those statements that could be basically semantic. So, without hearing her full explanation, I can't assert in clear terms what is now just my suspicion: She's a dingus.

* "short introductory phrases less than five words don't need commas"

A short introductory phrase with fewer than six words doesn't necessarily need a comma, either. Strunk & White is actually one of my favorite sources on this one, but they don't go so far as to put a number on how many words are officially "short." That question is usually one best assessed by the writer.

* "more commas are appropriate--or at least acceptable--in academic writing than in business"

I gotta wonder: What's her source on this? If this is her impression and she's basing it her own extensive experience in dealing with academic writing, then I guess I would take her word for it. But I wonder whether she's, well, talking out her backside.

* "the declining use of the comma is perceived to be a function of economy"

Ah, the wiley use of passive sentence structure. So slick it almost makes us forget to ask, "Perceived by WHOM?"

* "ironically, a comma is required before the conjunction in a final item of a list"

I don't take a position on this one. I was raised in AP style, where the serial (or Oxford) comma is ommitted. In Chicago style, that extra comma is included. Most academics agree that comma is a keeper. But it drives me nuts when someone goes around telling people that something is "wrong" when in fact it's a perfectly defensible style choice. If it's safer in legal situations, why not just say so and leave it at that?

Lordy. Why must people run around talking about this stuff in silly absolutes?

I will often look back at a sentence I've written and realize that it's much more readable without commas I originally included. I think a more streamlined sentence, if you will, is in vogue. But I wouldn't put it the way she did.

Regarding your organization's need for a style guide, you could kind of informally start one. You could send out an e-mail to colleagues and say, FYI, Joe in legal just told me that we always abbreviate "Association" in proper names as "Assn." I'm going to jot that down on a pad on my desk along with other stuff I learn and I'll pass it along to anyone who's interested.

That way, you're not appointing yourself the style guru but offering to provide the service of documenting the decision-makers' preferences.

Then again, maybe that wouldn't be kosher in your circumstances. Just a thought!

- June


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