The Comma

Some thoughts on the humble comma, from Between You & Me long-time New Yorker proofreader Mary Norris:

Aldus Manutius

Aldus Manuzio (Manutius)

The comma was refined by Aldo Manuzio, a printer working in Venice, circa 1490. It was intended to prevent confusion by separating things. In the Greek, komma means ‘something cut off,’ a segment. (Aldo was printing Greek classics during the High Renaissance. The comma flourished during the Renaissance.) As the comma proliferated, it started generating confusion. Basically, there are two schools of thought: One plays by ear, using the comma to mark a pause, like dynamics in music; if you were reading aloud, the comma would suggest when to take a breath. The other uses punctuation to clarify the meaning of a sentence by illuminating its underlying structure. Each school believes that the other gets carried away. It can be tense and kind of silly, like the argument among theologians about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. How many commas can fit into a sentence by Herman Melville? Or, closer to home, into a sentence from The New Yorker?

Aldus Manutius

“Even something as ostensibly simple as the serial comma can arouse strong feelings. The serial comma is the one before ‘and’ in a series of three or more things. With the serial comma: My favorite cereals are Cheerios, Raisin Bran, and Shredded Wheat. Without the serial comma: I used to like Kix, Trix and Wheat Chex. Proponents of the serial comma say that it is preferable because it prevents ambiguity, and I’ll go along with that. … [But] isn’t the ‘and’ sufficient? After all, that’s what the other commas in a series stand for: ‘Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!’ A comma preceding ‘and’ is redundant. …

“Fortunately, the Internet is busy with examples of series that are absurd without the serial comma:

We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.’ …
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God’

“And there was the country-and-western singer who ‘was joined by his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.’

“The bottom line is to choose one and be consistent and try not to make a moral issue out of it. Or is it? Maybe it’s better to judge each series on its merits, applying the serial comma where it’s needed and suppressing it where it’s not. Many newspapers, both American and British, do not use the serial comma, which underscores the idea that the news is meant to be read fast, in the dead-tree version or on the screen, because it’s not news for long. It’s ephemeral. Print — or, rather, text — should be streamlined and unencumbered. Maybe the day is coming when the newsfeed-style three dots (ellipsis) between items, like the eternal ribbon of news circling the building at One Times Square or the CNN crawl, will dominate, and all text will look like Celine. Certainly advertising — billboards, road signs, neon — repels punctuation. Leaving out the serial comma saves time and space. The editors of Webster’s Third saved eighty pages by cutting down on commas.

“But suppose you’re not in a hurry. Suppose you move your lips when you read, or pronounce every word aloud in your head, and you’re reading a Victorian novel or a history of Venice. You have plenty of time to crunch commas. If I worked for a publication that did not use the serial comma, I would adjust — convert from orthodox to reform — but for now I remain loyal to the serial comma, because it actually does sometimes prevent ambiguity and because I’ve gotten used to the way it looks. It gives starch to the prose, and can be very effective. If a sentence were a picket fence, the serial commas would be posts at regular intervals.”

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