Ode to the Comma

I am used to editing other people’s work, which means I determine the punctuation rules applied.  Through the years, I decided consistency in application trumps any changes in grammar rules with which I disagree – primarily in regard to the comma. 

My two years in high school under the strict tutelage of Mrs. Masterson ingrained her comma rules in my writing, and no arbitrary changes in fashion can alter them.  I tend to prefer my commas in tidy pairs, married for life, no matter that The New Yorker now leaves one hanging alone like a recent divorcee.

But what happens when I am not the editor?  As I prepare to turn the manuscript for The Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill over to Lynnell Burkett for editing, I realize my comma standards could be endangered species.   She taught journalism for years; she edited the editorial page at the San Antonio Light and Express-News.  I will have no leg on which to stand when Lynnell brandishes the most recent version of the Associated Press Stylebook.  Lynnell probably has never even heard of Mrs. Masterson of Norfolk Academy.

I decided, prior to suffering the loss of any of my commas or the insertion of unwanted ones, to pen an ode to the comma.  Checking online to make sure no one else had devoted effort to praise this punctuation point, I naturally found someone had.   

“The Grammar Girl,” whose link appears broken (found it), conducted a poetry contest in honor of National Punctuation Day (Yes, you were not alone in missing the celebration of this and the related baking contest on September 24).  Fortunately, Textbroker Blog preserved the winning entries in Grammar Girl’s contest, including the following:

Ode to the Comma

The female body part of punctuation,
So tiny, yet able to arouse such aggravation.
The comma slips in under the quotation,
Tells you when to pause for reflection,
Then plunge ahead to the period’s conclusion.
Neglect it at your peril: accusations,
law suits, wars. Nations
fall. Pretend it doesn’t exist at all? Risk condemnation.
Treat it right for absolution.
That’s right, put it there: Yes, oh, yes . . . satisfaction.

– Stacey Harwood
Stacey Harwood is a policy analyst with the New York State Department of Public Service. She is a freelance writer and managing editor of The Best American Poetry blog.

Lynnell, I am warning you now.  I might not be able to muster a strong case against the AP Stylebook, but, touch my commas, and the ghost of Mrs. Masterson could render your nights sleepless.

Update on Wednesday, February 29, 2012: On, no. This post provides indisputable evidence. I am a pilkunnussija.

In Nine Foreign Words English Definitely Needs, Cole Gamble and Cathal Logue define this useful Finnish word as:

A person who believes it is their destiny to stamp out all spelling and punctuation mistakes at the cost of popularity, self-esteem and mental well-being.

I feel no need to supplement this definition with their literal translation of the compound word, but I wish they had included a pronunciation guide.

In the same column, the authors also reference the existence of the Apostrophe Protection Society.

Note Added on August 28, 2012: Stumbled across this profile of Patty Masterson….

Note Added on October 23, 2012: Tom Gething interviews the endangered semicolon….

4 thoughts on “Ode to the Comma”

  1. After transcribing some notes yesterday, I realized I have developed some odd grammar problems around the comma. I am giving myself refresher course this week. ASAP!

    And I love this piece, by the way— love it. Your writing about grammar is fun and playful and useful. Thanks!


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