Whither, comma?

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Kath­leen Parker

— My fa­vorite bumper sticker I’ve never seen: Com­mas mat­ter.

So I’ve al­ways thought, and do still be­lieve with the passion of one whose knuck­les were rapped for gram­mat­i­cal er­rors. I mean this only metaphor­i­cally — no bloody fingers — but us­ing in­cor­rect gram­mar was the Eighth Deadly Sin in my child­hood home. How grate­ful I am that this was so. And now I have a con­fes­sion: I’ve be­gun to for­get the rules. What used to come nat­u­rally has be­come a test of re­call. Does a comma go here? Should I use the Ox­ford comma?

I don’t think this is singly at­trib­ut­able to the ag­ing process (shut up) but rather to our in­creas­ing slop­pi­ness in new ways of com­mu­ni­cat­ing. We may as well blame so­cial me­dia for this, too, es­pe­cially Twit­ter. When you only have 140 char­ac­ters to make a point, why waste one on a comma?

For­tu­nately, I have ed­i­tors to sweep up be­hind me and make sure all my com­mas are in or­der, though even they (and I, ob­vi­ously) oc­ca­sion­ally miss some­thing, even (gasp!) re­cently a sub­ject/ verb dis­agree­ment. Of all things!

Yes, that was a sen­tence frag­ment, de­lib­er­ately in­cor­rect in the ser­vice of KP style, as op­posed to AP (As­so­ci­ated Press) style, which is the fi­nal word for most news­pa­per copy ed­i­tors.

In my per­sonal style­book, de­vel­oped over al­most 30 years of col­umn writ­ing, it’s fine to mis­use gram­mar in­ten­tion­ally. But it’s not all right to mis­use a word, such as “over,” where one should use “dur­ing.”

If you’re lucky (and prob­a­bly older), you learned these things in school, along with the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion ta­bles. They’re im­printed on your brain so that the cor­rect an­swer comes rel­a­tively quickly and ac­cu­rately.

Not so for younger gen­er­a­tions, who’ve had the du­bi­ous ben­e­fit all their lives of spell- and gram­mar-check, as well as hand­held de­vices. It may not mat­ter how one pro­duces a sum or a sen­tence, but it’s my plea­sure to worry about such things. The quick men­tal func­tion that says 9 times 9 is 81 with­out ben­e­fit of a cal­cu­la­tor, be­sides be­ing strangely sat­is­fy­ing, pro­vides pe­ri­odic re­as­sur­ance that the brain is suf­fi­ciently oxy­genated.

What­ever synapses are in­volved in that pre­cise if rote cal­cu­la­tion must be­sides do some­thing good for the nog­gin. Cal­is­then­ics for the brain, per­haps? What, then, is fail­ing to oc­cur in minds that are de­prived of these daily ex­er­cises? The cor­rect an­swer is a Google away, but I’ll leave this to the dear read­ers while I re­turn to the ques­tion of gram­mar. Does it mat­ter, re­ally? Yes, please. It mat­ters be­cause good gram­mar con­veys a great deal about a per­son.

Qual­ity is in the de­tails — and at­ten­tion to com­mas, semi­colons, dan­gling par­tici­ples, gerunds and the proper place­ment of quo­ta­tion marks says to the reader that this per­son is care­ful, con­sid­er­ate (be­cause bad gram­mar is painful to the dis­cern­ing eye), and (there’s that Ox­ford comma) com­pe­tent.

“Gram­mar is cred­i­bil­ity,” says Amanda Sturgill, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Elon Univer­sity, where I re­cently spoke. “If you’re not tak­ing care of the small things, peo­ple as­sume you’re not tak­ing care of the big things.”

Sturgill, who de­votes an en­tire day of class to the lowly comma, says that most stu­dents have a lim­ited ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the nu­ances of comma us­age. Most have been taught that you in­sert a comma when you would nat­u­rally pause in speak­ing or where you would take a breath.

As Sturgill makes clear in her 14 points of comma us­age (http://ow.ly/C99L304R4lh), there’s more to it — and not just gram­mat­i­cally.

Last April, jour­nal­ist Mona Cha­l­abi made a lit­tle splash in video-com­men­tary for The Guardian when she averred that gram­mar snobs are pa­tron­iz­ing, pre­ten­tious, cen­so­ri­ous — and a bunch of other stuff. Oh, and also prob­a­bly racist. This is be­cause, wait for it, most peo­ple who cor­rect oth­ers are older and white. She claimed that gram­mar-mon­gers ef­fec­tively si­lence voices strain­ing to be heard.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing point, but do peo­ple re­ally go around cor­rect­ing strangers’ gram­mar? One could stay quite busy do­ing this.

I sup­pose I’m one of those snobs even if some­times I, too, err. But we do no fa­vors to ris­ing gen­er­a­tions to pre­tend that it’s only the thought that counts. Bet­ter than find­ing ex­cuses — or im­ply­ing that good gram­mar is an at­ti­tude of old white folks — our ef­forts might be bet­ter di­rected at teach­ing the rules by which the real world abides.

Kath­leen Parker is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact her at kath­leen­parker@wash­post.com.


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