Are you a “comma queen”?

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This blog was originally posted on March 5th, 2015.

When I say I am a teacher of writing to a new acquaintance, I often get the response no doubt familiar to you: “Oops; better watch my language.” This stereotype of the English teacher as a nit-picker extraordinaire is widespread and seems to be deeply ingrained in the national psyche as “Miss Fidditch.” This character’s name seems to have been coined by linguist Henry Lee Smith in the early 1950s—though H. L. Mencken had earlier referred to “old maid schoolteachers who would rather parse than eat.” So the stereotype is surely an old one.

I became familiar with Miss Fidditch, however, when I read a book on style, Martin Joos’s The Five Clocks: a Linguistic Excursion into the Five Styles of English Usage (1967). Joos’s book (along with a brilliant and witty introduction by Albert Marckwardt) left a lasting impression on me, introducing me to the notion of contextual appropriateness and convincing me that where English is concerned, there is never one solitary right way to proceed: everything depends on the rhetorical situation and the intended purpose. Joos describes five styles: intimate, casual, consultative, formal, and frozen or formative, the last the kind of language that needs to remain the same in all situations: a phrase from the Bible, for example.

Apparently, Joos was inspired to write this book when he was teaching a grammar course to a group of teachers. When he asked them to respond to a short passage, they set at it with a vengeance, marking it up in every direction and finding it woefully lacking. Joos then had to tell them that it had been written by a Pulitzer prize winner (!). What he also no doubt told them was a lot about the importance of purpose and situation in style, from the intimate language appropriate to spouses or partners to the formal writing of the business world—and everything in between.

You may have run into Miss Fidditch in the work of Ken Macrorie or Peter Elbow, for she makes appearances there. But it’s worth going back to Joosas well; his is an important work in understanding how to talk to young writers about style.

Miss Fidditch was (is) no doubt a “comma queen,” a phrase that Mary Norris applies to herself in “Holy Writ: Learning to Love House Style,” which appeared in the February 23, 2015 issue of The New Yorker. Norris is a grand stylist herself, straightforward, witty, self-deprecating in just the right way, and friendly: she takes us on a journey through her life, from “foot checker” at a local swimming pool, to milk truck driver, dishwasher, mozzarella cheese packer, and eventually as a minor clerical worker in the editorial library of The New Yorker. There she has remained, working her way up from one job to the next and honing her love of style—and especially of the comma. She began reading everything as if she were copyediting it, and commas were her special territory: she could spot an errant one a mile away. But she learned to control her ardor, remembering that commas don’t bow to hard and fast rules but are situational and contextual. Backing up a bit, she tells us that

The comma as we know it was invented by Aldo Manuzio, a printer working in Venice, circa 1500. It was intended to prevent confusion by separating things. In the Greek, komma means “something cut off,” a segment. (Aldo was printing Greek classics during the High Renaissance. The comma was a Renaissance invention.) As the comma proliferated, it started generating confusion. Basically, there are two schools of thought: One plays by ear, using the comma to mark a pause, like dynamics in music; if you were 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. Each school believes that the other gets carried away. (Paragraph 21, if I counted correctly in the article, which you can find here.)

A corps of commas ready to serve comma queens and comma commoners alike

Later, Norris tackles the question of the use of commas in a series (often referred to as the “Oxford  comma”), coming down on the side of those who advocate putting that final comma in, before the final item. I’ve always told students that putting that last comma in is easiest because then they can be consistent, not having to stop and think whether they need it there or not. Norris agrees, as indeed does New Yorker house style, and she gives some goofy examples to prove the point that leaving that last comma out can indeed sometimes produce confusion, consternation, or worse:

“We invited the strippers, J.F.K. and Stalin.” (This has beenillustrated online, and formed the basis of a poll: which stripper had the better outfit, J.F.K. or Stalin.)“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

The example I always use is “She ordered several sets of colorful socks:  banana yellow, turquoise, magenta, orange and lime.” Did she order four sets—or five? The comma makes the difference. Later in the essay, Norris tells readers of her fascination with comma usage in the work of James Salter, who uses a comma where she ordinarily would not put one, as in this sentence:

“Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach.”

Eventually, Norris runs across a number of such usages in Salter’s work, enough to let her know that they are intentional uses of the comma. She frets about this for some time and eventually writes to him. He gives a response that underscores how individual comma usage can be and especially how tied to purpose and situation it is:

As I had suspected, with the comma in “Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach,” [Salter] was trying to emphasize the contours of the stomach under the dress. “It wasn’t a thin burgundy dress,” he wrote. “It was a thin dress, burgundy in color. I wanted the reader to be aware of the thinness.”

Across the decades of my teaching career, I’ve met students whose comma use ranged from the “sprinkle in a few for effect” to as carefully chosen and deployed commas as the ones in Salter’s fiction. And I have certainly talked with students about the need to choose all punctuation with an eye to what is appropriate and effective in their particular rhetorical situation: which one of Joos’s five clocks they are telling time by. But I don’t think I have spent enough time demonstrating to students the full range and power of the lowly comma. Maybe I can be a “comma queen” without turning into “Miss Fidditch”!

[Image: a row of commas by Moira Clunle on Flickr]

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.