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Respecting The Comma

While this author’s colleagues discussed the intricacies of the editing process during a weekend session of the Writing and the Oral Traditions cohort, he attended his youngest daughter’s high school graduation. Of course, any parent worth the title would make himself available for this momentous event. But this student would like to examine the event of graduation from an editorial point of view.

As a college composition instructor, every semester this author repeatedly must explain the proper function and use of the punctuation mark The Comma. It is The Comma which tends to confound his students throughout the course, either English Composition or Research and Composition. And no amount of explanation can fully eradicate the fallacies of The Comma’s raison d’etre. The mark has no phonetic purpose; it is used to divide elements of the sentence for the sake of clarity.

The sentence “Let’s eat Grandma” provides adequate reason for writers to respect the value of The Comma. Indeed, omitting this mark has grave consequences for all involved, not the least of whom are cannibalistic relatives. If only the author had known the dangers! If only he had understood beforehand the criticality of The Comma in relation to direct address. It is the difference between eating dinner versus eating the cook, an hour of sated sleep versus a lifetime in Attica. If only the writer had known!

So, what does The Comma have to do with graduation? Everything, and nothing. The Comma, well placed, serves in the same fashion as a nail which fixes the frame to the wall; no one can see it until it fails. The punctuation mark is similar to a competent umpire in baseball: the fans will not notice him until he makes a mistake. Then, the hats come off, the dirt flies, the benches empty in anger, or, at the very least, confusion. The coach is heard yelling, “What do you mean there’s no comma separating two independent clauses separated by a conjunction?!” Or later, “The Oxford comma is TOO necessary to clarify and properly separate items in a list! What is wrong with you?”

Alas, this author’s students consistently bring the proverbial knife-to-a-gunfight argument to The Comma debate. “My high school teacher said . . .,” this author can hear in his dreams, “a comma is used to create a pause.” No, a caesura creates a pause. A breath creates a pause. The Comma may form a pause in the reader’s mind, but its purpose is to clarify the essay. When one writes, “We saw the strippers Putin and Trump,” hopefully the reader senses a vague feeling of nausea at the thought of these two decrepit dictators shimmying up a silver pole, casting smoldering glances at the balding men nursing their flat Budweisers, fingering their grimy dollar bills. Meanwhile, with the help of The Comma, the reader can see the strippers, Putin, and Trump all lounging at the bar, discussing hotel arrangements after a long night’s work.

I saw my daughter’s graduation The Comma and it was a beautiful occasion. I love my daughter The Comma and I have never been more proud of her achievements. I raised my daughter for this event to form a comma in her life, a separation between child and adult, apprentice and journeywoman, this and that. The Comma which divides us, my daughter and I, also connects us as she slowly advances along her own way, to her own place, in her own time. It is The Comma which forms the bonds necessary for us to call each other, and to tell each other stories, dozens of years ahead. It is The Comma, that tiny screw, which upholds the chair on which we sit together, flowers in her hand, as she tells me she loves me this night, and 18 years of nights before. The Comma, driven into the sentence of this moment with the very weight of our lives. My daughter The Comma I, and our future stretching left, and, to our right The Comma the past.

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