In a statement so crisply cogent as to stand in pure endorsement of itself, Lynne Truss, author of Eats Shoots and Leaves, tells us that “proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.” Doubtless, her gift for the gab, both technical and rhetorical, has earned her swarms of loyal recruits. It will also have given those who call themselves kindred spirits all the excuse they crave to take their commas, semi-colons, and apostrophes to heart.
As for me, I have never needed one.
For how many times have I asked myself of what my exposition would consist if not for the conscientious comma? Retiring as it may appear, this wee dynamo of delineation rarely shirks its grammatical calling. It is deceptively diligent, scuttling about its business of recommending pause, selflessly committed to supplying me, and indeed every aspiring wordsmith, the mechanical means to clear communique. With a mere flick of my nib, I can enlist its wiles to muster method from mayhem, just as, ideally, my readers can glean from its intelligence my authorial intent. And so, time and again, in a spirit of due deference, I call upon it to perform titan feats of syntactic diplomacy: to tame fractious phrases, to mediate among mutinous modifiers, to bolster bashful transitions, and all the while, to keep those less savoury alternatives of dash and parenthesis at bay.
Or so it plays out in my pedant’s version of paradise.
Sadly, in the wider world of solecistic abandon, my kindly comma is far more inclined to be shunned as superfluous, or stolen to places it was never meant to frequent. Too often, I find it cowering, dazed, in the shadow of compound predicates or dodging hot crossfire from cumulative repartee. It only makes me wonder why, in the face of such pervasive disregard, debates continue to roil over the preservation of its integrity. For example, the question as to whether or not it should be allowed to appear after the second to last noun in a series of three or more has lately produced enough static on social media to zap the grumpy cat. Proponents of the Oxford insist that its inclusion is the only means of avoiding the ambiguity that must arise if the final two elements are taken to modify the first, and “I had dinner with my parents, my grandfather and my aunt” gives way to a garbled suggestion of incest. Opponents counter that it only creates redundancy and that any more prominent member of the BOYFAN-damily is equal to the task. In defense of the latter, and reference to that striped and stellar metonym, the red, white, and blue, James Thurber once quipped that ”all those commas make the flag seem rained on.They give it a furled look. Leave them out, and Old Glory is flung to the breeze, as it should be.” Still, regardless of who is in the right, the mere existence of the controversy at least reassures me that our collective capacity for, and curiosity over, the intricacies of syntax have not quite yet gone the way of the dodo, even if only flapping their last in terms of token theory.
So then, just what is it that keeps us from embracing these diachronic strictures and ensuring, in our daily practice, that the comma and its symbolistic siblings don’t fall into into ignominious extinction? For those of us few holdouts from the age of letters and longhand, could it have to do with the fact that we live in mortal dread of estrangement from our textually-active peers? Individually, it’s as if we see ourselves perched precariously on some frittering outcrop of sense and sensibility, surrounded by a void of pointless blather from which there is no sustenance to be bled. Our fear of isolation from a vast majority that seems to have neither time nor inclination to stop scrolling long enough to decipher and discriminate is, apparently, so all-consuming as to be worth suffering any perfunctory dictate of a cyber-dazzled world. Surely this is why even the most vigilant among us will sometimes, even frequently, resort to the comma to rescue us from any grammatical context we can’t immediately comprehend.
But alternatives do exist! The semi-colon, for instance, second only to the full stop for calling a halt to all manner of splice and run-on nonsense, has helped me out of many a punctuational pinch. When I seek something akin to the period for distinguishing independent clauses, and the comma for linking them in terms of what they mean (as in, “your punctuation is remarkable; you never use a comma when a splice will suffice“), I can always count on this dialectical dervish to furnish me with all the punch and poignancy I require. And so, ever keen in its defense, I turn a deaf ear to the naysayers, the Kurt Vonneguts, who (lacking so much as half-intestinal fortitude) have dubbed my little helper a “transvestite hermaphrodite representing absolutely nothing”. On the contrary, when respectfully applied, it is the very soul of subtlety and precision, capable of cutting to the heart of every species of verbosity. But, alas, as users grow more and more indifferent, and reluctant to expose themselves for the bunglers that they really are, the idiosyncratic semi-colon is fast falling from fashion, if not from usage altogether. A far cry we are from Dickens’ day when its punctilious profile might turn up ten times or more on any given page of script, and in performance of numerous offices related to listing and linking. Today, the only such glimpse we are likely to catch is that of it punctu-winking at us from some social network page, in a gesture of crude diplomacy.
As for the comma’s high-flying doppelganger, the apostrophe, the general public may be less reticent to use it, but it is by no means better qualified. This tiny minion projects such a lofty air of omnipotence, in aiming to influence the very meaning and construction of words, that many are compelled by it and eager to exploit its charms in their own inventive terms. In fact, its magical potential for conjuring possessives and crystallizing contractions has proven so universally intoxicating as to have been all but wished into analogy with pluralization and third person singular conjugation (so that two shows become two show’s, and he shows becomes he show’s), not to mention, redundant expression of possession (for their’s not to reason why). Indeed, in taking inventory, I am tempted to conclude that there is no single mark of punctuation that has gone unscathed by the influence of contemporary standards, or the lack thereof, with the possible exception of the period, which, apart from being asked to fake a stake at the end of the odd sentence fragment, seems largely to have been left to its own dogged devices. Which brings me back, as always, to that unfinished light bulb of perpetual inquiry, the question mark.
And my question is this: if the one instrument of discrimination not due to emerge from under the wheels of progress deflated and deformed is that which is invulnerable only by virtue of its one-dimensionality, then what is to become of all those lovely shades of gray of which we are so collectively proud to consist? Are they really destined to revert to black and white?
Perhaps they are. Maybe it is just all about time and tides of waters we can’t possibly fathom as long as we are obliged to flounder in their depths. For as the poet Kahlil Gibran so prettily put it, “life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday.” And so, to stick, with due humility, to the manageable present, there is but one thing this inveterate word nerd can say she knows for sure: as long as the conscientious comma has a home on my keyboard, it likewise has a place in my heart.
*Fellow enthusiasts, be sure to check out GRAMMA TICKLE SAYS, a page of grammar tips, updated weekly.