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Emily Grossman

Cordial Responses Require Commas

September 30, 2008 at 3:38 AM

One time, I got really paranoid about my use of the comma. I went out and bought another copy of Strunk and White, having long ago lost my mother's copy. After reviewing a few basic rules and discovering that there might just be a little room for preference after all, I decided it was best to apply the comma laws where necessary, and in cases where personal preference came into play, I would insert commas only where they could help clarify the sentence. Commas also went everywhere that conversation dictated; pauses for breath, for instance, merited commas.

Unfortunately, if you ever met me, you would notice right away that I speak in commas. You will find, that as I round the corners of my thoughts, and I try to find my way to the point of the sentence, I will pause and regroup several times, causing many people to become impatient and stop listening altogether. Run-on sentences become run-on lessons, and before I know it, I'm spilling over into the next student's slot.

I should be more blunt.

I should stick to simple sentences.

"Your child forgot his music."

"Your payment was due last week."

"Keep your children from breaking my trees."

"Pick up your child on time."

"Write this down."

"He needs a new instrument."

Instead, I wrote:

"Thank you for writing. I'm sorry, and I promise it won't happen again."

From Graham Clark
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 9:24 AM
Very interesting...

Emily, do you emphasise phrase boundaries in music?


From Roland Garrison
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 3:36 PM
On reading this, I can't help but remember Phonetic Punctuation by Victor Borge; I hope that is not what you mean when yousay you speak in commas.... :>
From Terez Mertes
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 6:05 PM
How funny... I suffer from comma paranoia too! : ) Come to think of it, I speak in commas, too. Uh oh, paranoia sets in. Should the first sentence have had a comma after "paranoia"? So that it agreed with the second sentence? Or should I omit the comma in the second sentence? And are all these sentences ending with question marks appropriate? Should I be stating more and questioning less? Is this a reflection on me, or on my writing? Oh dear, was that last comma necessary, or merely decorative?
From Tom Holzman
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 8:01 PM
The ultimate in comma paranoia for me happened once in my work when the general counsel of my agency was reviewing something I wrote. He was taking out commas all over the place. He finally explained to me the reason. He had previously practiced law in England. There had been an important case (not his) involving interpretation of a contract, and the House of Lords, in reviewing the case, had misinterpreted the significance of a comma. So, after that, he simply wrote without them and was proceeding to make my document conform to his practice.
From David Allen
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 8:49 PM
Huzzah, for Strunk and White!
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 8:52 PM
Tom's story reminds me of what I was taught as a kid in school. Someone wrote a will in which he left all his money in equal amounts to A, B and C. The judge ruled that A got 50% and B and C each got 25%. If the will had read "in equal amounts to A, B, and C," each of them would have gotten one third of the money. Such is the importance of commas.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 9:26 PM
The panda bear eats shoots and leaves.

Watch as the comma transform this benign vegetarian into a ruthless killer:

He now eats, shoots, and leaves.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on October 1, 2008 at 1:56 AM
My philosophy is write however you want as long as there's no ambiguity. The panda sentence would work either way, since everybody knows once they start shooting they don't leave.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on October 1, 2008 at 4:03 AM
in England, that joke has a more Freudian interpretation.
From Tom Steele
Posted on October 1, 2008 at 2:28 PM
That Strunk and White was mine!

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