I confessed in a previous column, “Grammar Snob,” that I am, in fact, a Grammar Snob. I am one of those people (there are three of us) who find robust humor in Jack Sparrow’s use of parallel structure in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” where he states, “I think we’ve all arrived at a very special place. Spiritually, ecumenically, grammatically.” Ha! Ha! I’m giggling right now.
But I reserve special affection for the comma. It is so often misused, unused, and underused, I feel that the least I can do is devote 675 words to the little guy. Honestly, the comma is an invention of our civilized world that is not unlike the zipper: Even though we might occasionally get hung up on it, it truly makes our lives easier.
Ironically, another construct of our modern world is hastening the demise of our friend, comma. I am referring, of course, to texting. You can find a teenager at a Barry Manilow concert more often than you’ll find a comma in a text. My texts, however, will come to you properly punctuated. I can’t help it.
I take heart in the fact that I’m in good company regarding my respect for the comma, as there is an Oscar Wilde anecdote that has been entertaining Grammar Snobs for decades. The story goes that when Wilde was questioned smugly about what kind of work he did all day, he responded that he spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.
Go, Oscar! I do, too! (Or is it, “Go Oscar; I do, too”?)
Anyhoo, then my editor gets in the game with me, because I’ll put a comma in, and he’ll take it out.
I happen to enjoy writing the occasional long, breezy and rhythmic, free-flowing sentence — not so free-flowing and stream–of-consciousness as James Joyce, per se, but lengthy enough to cover the lumpy parts and loose enough to be comfortable, like a swing top.
But my editor doesn’t like long sentences. He likes them short. He likes them punchy. He likes them short and punchy. He takes out commas and puts in periods.
This brings me to another comma entirely, which is the serial comma, a.k.a. the Oxford comma, my absolute favorite comma of all. I think of it as a rare gem when I see it glowing brightly in its perfect setting between the penultimate word in a series and a conjunction. My editor, however, uses the Associated Press comma, which is invisible. So I’ll write a phrase such as, “planes, trains, and automobiles,” and as soon as I pass it along to my editor, my attentively placed serial comma (the one after “trains”) will disappear like my kids when it’s time to do yardwork.
I maintain that the conjunction is not enough. Imagine us walking through a garden, stopping along the way to smell the roses, as it were, and then when we near the end of our stroll, we are shoved right past the final bed of flowers. Well, that would be rude. It’s the same way with the written word. We walk along through a series, pausing politely after each word or phrase in it, and then we hit the no man’s land of comma blankage and stumble clumsily, head-first into the final word. It’s madness.
My affection for the serial comma was rekindled several months ago when I learned about a court case in Maine that involved said comma; it had to do with dairy workers and the tasks they performed that would or would not garner them overtime pay. Without going into journalistic details, I will tell you that the final two items on the list of tasks ineligible for overtime pay were not separated by a comma. The judge stated, “For want of a comma, we have this case,” and, in fact, for want of a comma, the dairy workers won.
The devil is in the details, and the clarity is in the comma.