Quotes for Writers
When the humorist James Thurber was writing for New Yorker editor Harold Ross in the 1930s and 1940s, the two men often had very strong words about commas. It is pleasant to picture the scene: two hard-drinking alpha males in trilbies smacking a big desk and barking at each other over the niceties of punctuation. According to Thurber’s account of the matter (in The Years with Ross ), Ross’s “clarification complex” tended to run somewhat to the extreme: he seemed to believe there was no limit to the amount of clarification you could achieve if you just kept adding commas. Thurber, by self-appointed virtuous contrast, saw commas as so many upturned chairs unhelpfully hurled down the wide-open corridor of readability. And so they endlessly disagreed. If Ross were to write, “red, white, and blue” with the maximum number of commas, Thurber would defiantly state a preference for “red white and blue” with none at all, on the provocative grounds that “all those commas make the flag seem rained on. They give it a furled look.”
…In the end Thurber simply had to resign himself to Ross’s way of thinking. After all, he was the boss; he signed the checques; and of course he was a brilliant editor, who endearingly admitted once in a letter to H.L. Mencken, “We have carried editing to a very high degree of fussiness here, probably to a point approaching the ultimate. I don’t know how to get it under control.” And so the comma proliferated.
…Why the problem? Why the scope for such differences of opinion? Aren’t there rules for the comma, just as there are rules for the apostrophe? Well, yes; but you will be entertained to discover that there is a significant complication in the case of the comma. More than any other mark, the comma draws our attention to the mixed origins of modern punctuation, and its consequent mingling of two quite distinct functions:
- To illuminate the grammar of a sentence
- To point up — rather in the manner of musical notation — such literary qualities as rhythm, direction, pitch, tone and flow
This is why grown men have knock-down fights over the comma in editorial offices: because these two roles of punctuation sometimes collide head-on — indeed, where the comma is concerned, they do it all the time.
…On the page, punctuation performs its grammatical function, but in the mind of the reader it does more than that. It tells the reader how to hum the tune.
From Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, p. 68-71.
So, what are your thoughts on the lowly comma—or punctuation in general? Do you like the Oxford comma or insist it be left out? Do you allow semi-colons into your work? Do you have a fondness for em-dashes? Are you clear on when to use an apostrophe?
Are you laissez-faire when it comes to punctuation, or do you walk around with a red Sharpie correcting the signs in the supermarket that say “Pear’s 1.99/lb”?
P.S. Did you know that “trilbies” are hats? I didn’t—I had to look it up.