Got Room for a Few Commas?

Lynne Truss,  the well-known British stickler and curmudgeon,  was doubtless much more offended by misuses/abuses of the apostrophe (frequently correcting such gaffes in public places) than by similar problems in using or overusing the comma.

The title of her best-selling book, however,  illustrates the problem that misused commas can create. The cover depicts a small panda holding a revolver over her title,  “Eats, Shoots, & Leaves.”  The problem here,  obviously, is in the overuse of the comma.  Clarity would have been achieved with this sequence “Eats Shoots & Leaves.”  Here there is only one verb (“eats”) with compound direct objects (“shoots” and “leaves”).   The description is clear about the animal’s foraging habits.

Why is it that those who write about linguistic gaffes and goofs relish punning titles for their books?  In my possession at the moment are two such tomes:  “Lapsing Into a Comma,” by Bill Walsh (2000) ; and “Comma Sutra” by Laurie Rozakis, 2005).  Guess you will catch the puns in each instance.

Were you to buy one of these,  I would strongly recommend Mr. Walsh’s.  The author is a veteran journalist who has manned the Copy Desk and Business Desk of the “Washington Post” for a number of years.  His is a comprehensive, well-written,  easily readable, and enjoyable book.  Laurie Rozakis,  Ph.D., is a contemporary academic type with an adolescent bent for vulgar or tasteless turns that turn me off.  But maybe I am not part of the audience she is seeking to reach.  Furthermore,   however,  after having read twenty or thirty pages, I had already zeroed in on at least five omissions or misplacements of basic information about English grammar and usage.

Now back to some further comments on the uses of the comma.  It is a very handy device for lightening up your prose and for clarifying structural moves within the sentence.  Here is an exercise that both Ms. Truss and I find helpful in introducting the power of punctuation to sway and emphasize.  How would, I used to advise my students, would a “male chauvinist pig” punctuate the following string of words?  Conversely, and to use a “Rushism,”  how would a “femiNazi” punctuate it so much differently?

woman without her man is nothing

I can’t let this posting go without some mention of the fondness that “New Yorker” founding editor Harold Ross had for the placing of commas,  advising them to be added so often that he became a pest to the writers.  E. B. White (arguably the writer and advisor who did the most to shape and form this iconic magazine) said at one point,  “Commas in ‘The New Yorker’ fell with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.”  And it may have been White also who sent Ross a Christmas card,  with the contents composed entirely of commas,  which Ross was advised to use as he pleased.

Look forward to hearing from you.



2 Responses to “Got Room for a Few Commas?”

  1. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Woman’s version…
    Woman with her man, is nothing!
    Woman, without her man, is nothing!

    I love my hubby, but I sure have to stand up for women.
    Couldn’t resist that opportunity to tease. I over use commas, try to do my best though.
    We all know how men need their women, lol! Would they ever have clean clothes? (Just joking!)

  2. Raymond Rundus Says:

    Tammy Stephens, a faithful reader and courageous human being: thanks for your contribution.

    And a good try at adding the proper punctuation of the string of words, “woman without her man is nothing.” Being a bit creative, perhaps, here is how the “male chauvinist pig” would present it:
    Woman, without her man, is nothing.

    And this would be how the putative “femiNazi” might present it:
    Woman! Without her, man is nothing.



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