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Bewildering Stories

Gary Inbinder
responds to Challenge 232

Those Commas of Yore

Or(,) is it “Commas(,) California and otherwise?”

I speak for the “punctuation challenged” among us who have trouble remembering where(,) and when(,) to place these pesky little stops(,) except(,) of course(,) in situations where placement changes the meaning of what the writer is trying to say. Perhaps(,) part of the problem is an over-reliance on Word Grammar Check(,) which seems to favor inserting the little devils(,) whether needed or not.

Maybe we should be like Faulkner(,) and eschew the comma(,) altogether. Or(,) perhaps we should be like Dickens(,) and leave the matter up to our editors?

Hush yo’ mouf’, Gary! Editors will feel like giving the dickens to any contributor who passes the punctuational buck. In one of the short stories in this issue I had to do a mass find-replace to convert “And,” to “And” and “But,” to “But” can you believe. At least a dozen replacements each. Despite all, the author writes darn good stuff.

A mini-Challenge: In Gary’s text quoted above, all the commas are either optional or incorrect; only one is required. Which is it? Quote the immediate context and explain why the comma has to be there.

Lynne Truss has some interesting things to say about the subject (,) in her book(,) Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The Panda joke is a perfect illustration of the comma problem. Does the Panda eat something at the bar(,) and then shoot someone(,) and finally leave the scene? Or (,) is the Panda an animal that(,) “eats shoots and leaves?”

Before leaving the subject here are a couple of great examples of comma-happy sentences from two great classics of English literature, courtesy of Lynne Truss.

“Jones flung himself at his benefactor’s feet, and taking eagerly hold of his hand, assured him, his goodness to him, both now, and at all other times, had so infinitely exceeded not only his merit, but his hopes, that no words could express his sense of it.”

— Henry Fielding, Tom Jones

“As they lay closely packed together, covered, for warmth’s sake, with their parched and ragged clothes, little could be distinguished but the sharp outlines of pale faces, over which sombre light shed the same dull, heavy colour, with here and there a gaunt arm thrust forth, its thinness hidden by no covering, but fully exposed to view, in all its shrunken ugliness.

— Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby


Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder

Either of those two passages is enough to give a reader hiccups. Now we know where the “British comma” came from: the 18th and 19th centuries. Modern writers have been trying to get rid of it! We wish them every success.


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