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Words to live by.

February 24, 2015

This week’s New Yorker magazine (the library’s third-most checked-out magazine) is a 90th anniversary edition. And for the few of you who know him it happens to include a cartoon by former Salidan Liam Francis Walsh.

Also, in the way of history, as well as insight into the way The New Yorker works, Mary Norris “tells all” about her career as a copy editor—although it’s less “all” and mostly about the comma, which is sufficient to demonstrate the care taken in producing The New Yorker.

We’ve discussed punctuation here before, such as the curious punctuation in the library’s old editions of Willa Cather novels—the “semicolon-dash” combination, “;—”. I still don’t understand it.

The comma was invented by an Italian printer in the 1500s to prevent confusion by separating things. The word comes from the Greek “komma” meaning “something cut off.”

There are two schools of thought. One is to use the comma by ear to make a pause. “If you are reading aloud, the comma would suggest when to take a breath.”

The other “uses punctuation to clarify the meaning of a sentence by illuminating its underlying structure.” I am in this camp. Commas should be used algebraically to bracket expressions or delineate elements.

A big issue is the serial comma. Do you write “the apple, banana and pear” or “the apple, banana, and pear”?

It is so obvious to me that the “and” ending a series is preceded by a comma, I can’t even abide the attempt to justify leaving it out. Not having it invites occasional misreading; having it is crystal clear all the time. Case closed.

You might disagree. Mary Norris discusses “that” vs. “which,” which involves commas and sense. This issue arises each time I sing James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” in which the words are “And closing his eyes/as the dogies retire/he sings out a song/which is soft but it’s clear.”

I try, but I usually have to sing “that is soft but it’s clear.” I think I’m right.

The New Yorker makes some subtle distinctions in its rules, and Norris demonstrates them by example: “If the sentence has an introductory clause (like this one), we separate it with a comma. But if the introductory clause follows a conjunction we don’t.” Except they make exceptions for “since” and “although.” Norris goes on to explain the fine structure of the distinctions they make.

She discusses an example of New Yorker commas that no other publication would use: “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret.” This is an example of algebraic use of commas to distinguish parenthetical insertions. The main statement is “Before Atwater died, he expressed regret.”

I prefer this precision in comma use to the mere invitation to pause, in which a single comma may or may not be distinguishable from a mistake, which in turn causes hesitation. The commas above provide conceptual clarity; you don’t necessarily have to take a breath with each one.

In her investigations, Norris corresponds with author James Salter, a beloved writer among writers, whose prose is considered exquisite. (I learned “James Salter” is a pseudonym; shocking.) She proceeds to analyze particular commas in his prose with great care.

Salter says, “I sometimes ignore the rules about commas … Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of sentences.”

“You don’t get permission for this, of course; you take the liberty.”

Words to live by.


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