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Friday, June 24, 2011

comma chameleon

my relationship with punctuation has progressed through at least three separate stages.

the first--the "Golden Ticket" stage--began when my third-grade teacher, ms. shannon, told me to forget about the rules and just place commas wherever i naturally paused when reading. her advice didn't seem possible and, in some sort of weird act of misplaced rebellion, i put her advice to the test. i grabbed my textbook and felt sure i could breeze across sentences, riding the zephyr of my own reading rhythms, unconcerned by the commas that tried to jump in my way. try as i might, though, my breath would regroup for that split second whenever i reached a comma. it was almost supernatural--as if the author knew precisely where i would need a quick sip of air, and thus sprinkled specks of punctuation to show me it was okay. god, how i remember feeling like i was witnessing a kind of magic, and how quickly i felt myself falling in love with this idea--the freedom to punctuate not by a set of obscure and clumsy edicts, but by the most instinctual part of ourselves: the breath.

stage two--which we'll call "Drill and Kill"--began in grad school when i started teaching freshman composition classes. early in that first semester, i had happily shared ms. shannon's punctuation tip with the students. i remember deciding how grateful the students would be to receive such an intuitive and "cool" non-rule rule. the first batch of essays they turned in, however, were littered with commas in all the wrong spots, strewn in places that suggested speed, and absent in nooks that begged for breaks. (the essays were also plagued by a number of larger and more important issues--most of which we addressed as the semester rolled along. some we didn't.)

i felt capable, perhaps even uniquely qualified, to help my students compose with a greater sense of thematic coherence and purpose. but what i didn't possess was an empirical and scientific answer for the students who, say, asked why the sentence "since he was so hungry, jerry felt like ordering two of everything on the menu" needs a comma, but "jerry felt like ordering two of everything on the menu since he was so hungry" does not. or why "my sister studied in paris, france, while in college" necessitates a comma after the word france.

luckily (if that's the right word), an intro to college grammar class was being held just down the hall from where i taught. and so the next morning, i spoke with the professor and she graciously allowed me to audit her class. thus began my systematic plunge into the science behind comma usage in specific, punctuation in particular, and grammar in general.

the third stage--and the era in which i currently reside--goes by a rather banal-sounding name: the "Signal" stage. simply stated, commas (and this goes for all other punctuation, too) are signals. as writers, we use them when mere words alone can't (or shouldn't) do the job. but you already knew that. perhaps, though, what you've haven't fully appreciated is that punctuation--when considered as a system of signals--means we are given a sort of second Golden Ticket. and this ticket is good for something much more creative and, ultimately, life-affirming than the original. what i am talking about here is punctuation in service of personal taste. when i sit down to write, i let personal taste dictate where my thoughts do and don't benefit from "signals." i use punctuation to help my words achieve (hopefully) the highest level of flow, clarity, precision, (insert other effect i may be working toward at any given moment). and there is no rulebook--which i know of, anyway--that has already divined the punctuation needs of sentences i have yet to write.

and that's the very advice i'd give to anyone who writes, wants to write, or even hates to write. punctuation, if you so desire, can come with a user's manual (a very, very helpful user's manual); but punctuation can also bend to personal taste--as long as you are crystal clear about what you mean by personal taste. for me, as i've said, i seek a kind of conversational ease, but with all the coherence and lucidity i can possibly muster. i want my writing to achieve what the thoughts swirling in my mind lack--namely, organization and concision and (dare to dream) elegance. and so when i've sketched my sentence as far as i can without punctuation and something still feels maddeningly "off," that's when i use punctuation to turn "on" what mere words cannot.

of course, the broader and more meaningful point i want to make here has very little to do with punctuation--either rule-based or otherwise. the deeper point is that personal taste isn't everything in writing, nor is it the only thing. but it's damn close. the only way a writer will ever get his or her sentences to flow forward--to gently role down the slope of smooth syntax--is through harnessing the power of personal taste. which, yes, is easier said than done, because personal taste often involves catering to (or at least being aware of) the preferences of the audience, the reader, the public. yet, the truth remains: we must develop the ability to look at our sentences and ask whether or not we've expressed ourselves in the best way. and then we must gather the courage to shape and reshape our thoughts into their highest form. and that requires a deep confidence--not in the rules--but our rules.


Jabiz said...

"i want my writing to achieve what the thoughts swirling in my mind lack--namely, organization and concision and (dare to dream) elegance. and so when i've sketched my sentence as far as i can without punctuation and something still feels maddeningly "off," that's when i use punctuation to turn "on" what mere words cannot."

Perfect. Thanks. I still often feel like I am mired in the Golden Ticket stage, despite having taken a grammar course like you. good think I have you emailing after every post with grammar and punctuation corrections. It is annoying but helpful and educational. I am just too lazy and work too quickly, but I do appreciate erudite expression.

billieball said...

i am lazy, too. so i make up for it while reading. i always have a tiny, tiny voice who is silently but vigilantly noting how the pros do it. (and that seeps in when i leap over to the other side.

Tine said...

So interesting, especially for someone like me who learned English as a second language from 5th grade on through til 13th grade. I even got my First Certificate of Cambridge English back then (quite the act for me in those days) and later I almost failed my A-levels by because of my F in English intense course (or however one calls it). And those commas... oh those commas never made any sense to me at all. We did learn about placing them somehow but not really it all seemed too nilly willy.
Enjoyed reading your article. Love the images you add, too, so neat!!

billieball said...

cool, tine.
thanks for stopping by.
and who really cares about commas, anyway.
i guess i just want to encourage people not to play the guessing game with punctuation, but rather follow the rules of personal taste.

which you have tons of. your writing is beautiful.

Tine said...

Thanks Ari ;)
I have always enjoyed writing as you might know. Speaking of which... how about that poor guy who is left dangling holding his speech a few blog posts down? Might have put him in a weird spot? We can start anew if you feel up for it, it's such fun and a nice little exercise for the brain ;)