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Magical comma to heroic hyphen

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Thursday, May 20, 2004
 

WASHINGTON The actress Margaret Anglin left this note in the dressing room of another actress: "Margaret Anglin says Mrs. Fiske is the best actress in America." Mrs. Fiske added two commas and returned the note: "Margaret Anglin, says Mrs. Fiske, is the best actress in America."

Little things mean a lot. That is the thesis of a wise and witty wee book, "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," just published by Lynne Truss, a British writer and broadcaster. She knows that proper punctuation, "the basting that holds the fabric of language in shape," is "both the sign and the cause of clear thinking."

The book's title comes from a joke: A panda enters a cafe, orders a sandwich, eats, draws a pistol, fires a few shots, then heads for the door. Asked by a waiter to explain his behavior, he hands the waiter a badly punctuated wildlife manual and says: "I'm a panda. Look it up." The waiter reads the relevant entry: "Panda: large black-and-white bear-like mammal. Eats, shoots and leaves."

Behold the magical comma. It can turn an unjust aspersion against an entire species ("No dogs please") into a reasonable request ("No dogs, please"), or it can turn a lilting lyric into a banal inquiry ("What is this thing called, love?"). The Christmas carol actually is "God rest ye merry, gentlemen," not "God rest ye, merry gentlemen."

Huge doctrinal consequences flow from the placing of a comma in what Jesus, when on the cross, said to the thief: "Verily, I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise" or "Verily, I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise." The former leaves little room for Purgatory.

Combined with a colon, a comma can fuel sexual warfare: "A woman without her man is nothing" becomes "A woman: without her, man is nothing." But a colon in place of a comma can subtly emit a certain bark.

"President Bush said, 'Get Bob Woodward.'"

"President Bush said: 'Get Bob Woodward.'"

But beware the derangement known as commaphilia, which results in the promiscuous cluttering of sentences with superfluous signals. A reader once asked James Thurber why he had put a comma after the word "dinner" in this sentence: "After dinner, the men went into the living room." Thurber, a comma minimalist, blamed the New Yorker's commaphilic editor, Harold Ross: "This particular comma was Ross' way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up."

Truss, a punctuation vigilante, says punctuation marks are traffic signals telling readers to slow down, pause, notice something, take a detour, stop. Punctuation, she says, "directs you how to read, in the same way musical notation directs a musician how to play" with attention to the composer's intentions regarding rhythm, pitch, tone and flow.

The almost-always-ghastly exclamation point has been rightly compared to canned laughter. F. Scott Fitzgerald said it was like laughing at your own joke. But not always. Victor Hugo, wondering how his "Les Miserables" was selling, sent this telegram to his publisher: "?" The publisher wired back: "!"

The dash can be, among other things, droll, as Byron understood:

He learned the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery,

And how to scale a fortress -- or a nunnery.

Or:

A little still she strove, and much repented,

And whispering "I will ne'er consent" -- consented.

The humble hyphen performs heroic services, making possible compounds that would otherwise be unsightly ("de-ice" rather than "deice"; "shell-like" rather than "shelllike"). And a hyphen can rescue meaning. As Truss says, "A cross-section of the public is quite different from a cross section of the public." If you are a pickled-herring merchant, you will not want to be called a pickled herring merchant. The difference between extra-marital sex and extra marital sex is not to be sneezed at.

The connection between the words "punctilious," which means "attentive to formality or etiquette," and "punctuation" is instructive. Careful punctuation expresses a writer's solicitude for the reader. Of course, punctuation, like most other forms of good manners, may yet entirely disappear, another victim of progress, this time in the form of e-mail, cell-phone text messages and the like.

Neither the elegant semicolon nor the dashing dash is of use to people whose preferred literary style is "CU B4 8?" and whose idea of Edwardian prolixity is: "Saw Jim -- he looks gr8 -- have you seen him -- what time is the thing 2morrow."

Oh, for the era when a journalist telephoned from Moscow to London to add a semicolon to his story!

 

 
 


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