Comma Wars From a Toe Checker

“Holy Writ” by Mary Norris. The New Yorker, 2/23/2015.

Mary NorrisFrom humble beginnings as a toe checker, Mary Norris became a long-time copy editor at The New Yorker. In times that I remember well, her first job at age 15 was checking swimmers at a public pool for athlete’s foot. In those days, everyone entering the pool area from the locker rooms had to step into a tray of milky disinfecting solution, containing who-knows-what. Compliance was enforced by a sullen young teenager, who also checked between everyone’s toes for signs of the dreaded athlete’s foot.  One of them was Mary Norris.  It was a job nobody wanted and is fortunately long gone.

Working her way through jobs washing dishes, packaging mozzarella, and cashiering at  E. J. Korvettes, (that the name stood for “eight Jewish Korean veterans” is only a suburban myth) she ended up on the staff of The New Yorker as a copy editor, becoming known as the “Comma Queen.”  I suppose her nick-name could be worse, but not by much.

Commas did not always exist. They were invented by a Venetian printer, Aldo Manuzio, in about 1500, to clarify sentence structure. In Greek, komma means a segment, something cut off.  (See the posting of 6/20/2014, “The Left-Handed Comma.“)

When it comes to commas, there are two dedicated schools of thought, each thinking the other is a group of intransigent, wild-eyed radicals. One school plays it by ear, seeing commas as poetic pauses, as in music, and where one would take a breath—or heave a melodramatic sigh—if reading aloud. The other sees commas as governed by a group of rules that clarifies the sentence structure, and you had better darn well stick to them or get your knuckles rapped. Many have a foot in both camps, ready to shift to any compromise to accommodate an opinion and to save their energy for more important battles.

As one example of contention—and only one of many—is the serial comma. In listing a series, should a comma precede the “and” before the last item, or not? As in “Rain, snow, and sleet,” can we do without that last serial comma? Does it only slow the reading without adding to the clarity? By simply eliminating unnecessary commas, Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary saved 30 pages in their Third Edition. (I still have the Second Edition, with all of the commas, on a stand in my living room.)

My own practice is to include the final serial comma for the occasional necessary clarification and to use it consistently to avoid endless trivial decisions. Here are two examples of confusion without it:

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

“The Country-and-Western singer was joined onstage by his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.”

A more difficult decision is when to separate a series of adjectives with  commas.  “She looked attractive in the thin, blue dress,” or is the comma superfluous, and the sentence should be written without it: “She looked attractive in the thin blue dress.”

Does it matter?  Yes, because a comma indicates the adjectives are coordinate, meaning they have equal importance to the noun.  One test for coordination is to see if you can substitute “and” for the comma.  Is “She looked attractive in the thin and blue dress,” acceptable?  I don’t think so.

Another test is if you can reverse the adjectives.  How does “She looked attractive in the blue, thin dress,” sound?  Not good to me.  By both tests, the the adjectives are not coordinate and the comma has got to go. (Norris uses this as an example of compromise.   A well-known author insisted the comma stay for other reasons too subtle for me to understand.)

Compare the tests on a sentence where the adjectives are coordinate: “It was a gray, snowy day.”  Keep the comma.

As Norris has found, personal opinion plays a big part in placing commas and is rarely worth an argument.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
This entry was posted in History, Popular culture, Writers and Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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