Renowned copy editor Merrill Perlman comes to the defense of outspoken Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the Columbia Journalism Review; her headline: “Comma Suture: A little punctuation mark can hold things together, or rend them asunder.”
She observes that the selection of Mr. Biden to be Sen. Barack Obama’s running mate has revived the debate over a statement the Delaware Democrat made in early 2007: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
“Now, we’re not going to deal with the question of whether his use of words like ‘articulate’ and ‘clean’ was racist or otherwise loaded, or whether he was slighting other ‘mainstream’ African-Americans like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm or even Jackie Robinson. Instead, we’re going to focus on the comma that could have helped make his point clearer,” Ms. Perlman writes.
Instead, she quotes Dean Mills, who happens to be dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism: “Seldom has the distinction between a restrictive and a nonrestrictive clause been more important. Without the comma, which is how every version I’ve seen is punctuated, it sounds as if Biden is saying that all other African-American candidates were not articulate, bright, etc.
“But if you listen to the clips, Biden pauses significantly between ‘African-American’ and ‘who.’ So he could have meant (and almost certainly did): ‘I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American, who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.’ ”
Ms. Perlman says she and Dean Mills “have had frequent run-ins over the serial comma, which he fervently believes in and I don’t. But this time, I’m on his side.”