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Commas save lives.

March 9, 2015

A friend photographed a sign hanging in her kitchen:

“Let’s eat Gramma.

Let’s eat, Gramma.

Commas save lives.”

I received several versions of this and had many interesting conversations over the last two weeks since our discussion of commas.

If we get a generation of children signing up for The Imagination Library through the Rotary Club, perhaps they will learn to use commas correctly—which, of course, means learning to use the Oxford comma.

However, sadly, not everyone agrees with me. I’ve talked with people who are solidly in the comma-for-breath camp, which sees commas primarily as direction for pauses in a sentence.

And I’ve met many people who absolutely cannot abide the Oxford, or serial, comma that should come after “banana” in “apple, banana and pear”—as viscerally as I cannot abide its absence.

Somehow, we get along.

A friend told me quite authoritatively that the cowboy in the song “Sweet Baby James” sings out a song “which is soft by it’s clear.” Not “that is soft …,” which is my inclination, despite what James Taylor wrote.

The question comes down to whether or not the phrase “is soft but it’s clear” is a restrictive or non-restrictive clause. Should we see, or think, comma?

Is the cowboy merely singing a song, and it just so happens to be soft and clear? Or is the song very specifically not just any song but in particular “a song that is soft but it’s clear.” Not just any song, but a clear soft song.

Ok, sheet music is not The New Yorker, the source of these reflections two weeks ago. My singing teacher would mark a place on the sheet music for a breath with a check mark.

The fine travel writer Pico Iyer paid homage to the comma in a Time.com article, June 24, 2001: “In praise of the humble comma.” At one point, he says, “… punctuation is something more than a culture’s birthmark; it scores the music in our minds … Punctuation is the notation in the sheet music of our words, telling us when to rest, or when to raise our voices; it acknowledges that the meaning of our discourse … lies not in the units but in the pauses, the pacing and the phrasing.”

There should have been a comma after “pacing.” Time failed to use the Oxford comma, and look—their circulation has declined ever since.

A friend gave me a Miss Seeton mystery—a British mystery series—in which she had highlighted, with sticky notes, examples of egregiously excessive use of commas, which, once I’d read them, I could only agree with, especially given my position, explicated here two weeks ago, that commas elucidate the algebraic structure of a sentence.

The Miss Seeton mystery was full of sentences like that. I rather liked them, not that a good pithy sentence getting right to the point is not welcomed and enjoyed.

If you look up the Pico Iyer article at the Time website, you will find, to delight your sense of irony, at least two proofreading mistakes. So goes our digital life.

One last note: If you have been intrigued by discussion of the comma, you might enjoy a new book in the library: “Shady Characters: the secret life of punctuation, symbols and other typographical marks” by Keith Houston.

There are fascinating and genuinely surprising histories of the pilcrow, interrobang, octothorpe, ampersand, and more. And except for the missing comma in the title, it’s also typographically lovely. CUL8R

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3 Comments
  1. Very well said. Also: should anyone need some commas for the commas they don’t have (and perhaps explaining the absence of the Oxford comma) I give some of my secret stash: ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

  2. That’s so simple. It never occurred to me that people might be out of commas. And here I am judging people for being careful with their limited supply.

    • really it happens people run out of stuff like that all of the time I can attest to that sometimes the well runs dry commas and periods for that matter dont grow on trees thank you the big deal the really big deal is when werunoutofspaces

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