Category Archives: punctuation

A good read for a snowy day…

Here’s a wonderful essay to read on what is here yet another snowy day. It’s from the 23 February 2015 New Yorker: “Holy Writ,” by Mary Norris, Copy Editor at the magazine.

Norris may be my new goddess. I agree with her on everything—except the claim that the comma is a pause. I think it’s a vocal dip usually without an actual pause. Using that definition, I concur on every comma choice she describes even though she makes those choices for reasons of a different nature. The test of my ear concurs with the test of her principles and reinforces her preference for the “Oxford comma.”

Well, anyway, it’s lovely, and exquisitely punctuated. Please follow this link and have yourself a great time!


“I am not confident about my punctual knowledge.”

Before I tell my current students about my blog, I have to share the newest addition to my collection.

When I read this sentence, I wondered what one needed to know about punctuality. Be there or be square; be there on time or be late. Was he going to talk about the techniques he knew for being on time, or lament that he knew no such techniques?

Or did he lack confidence in his ability to produce knowledge when required, such as on unannounced quizzes? Is he the type who thinks of the correct answer only after he’s handed in the paper, a phenomenon sort of like l’esprit de l’escalier?

No. What we have here is a fairly resourceful, if misleading, coinage, sort of a back formation. Here’s the rest:

“I am not confident about my punctual knowledge. The daughnting task of placing commas and semicolons is a strategic one…”

Punctual and punctuation share the letter cluster “punct,” from punctus, which my old friend Webster’s says is the Latin past participle of pungere, to prick. (Pungent also comes from this root.) They part company with Latin’s evolution into Middle Latin.

Punctual comes from punctualisThe first definition Mr. W. gives for punctual is “relating to or having the nature of a point.” Follows: “being to the point: pointed.” Then, “punctilious.” Then “a. being on time; b. characterized by regular occurrence, as in ‘the punctual small drop of water dripping somewhere in the rear,’ from Thomas Wolfe.” I have actually never heard “punctual” used  in sense 1 or 2—”I like the punctual aspect of a pencil” or “his argument was effective because it was so punctual.” But I, and I suspect most of us, use “punctual” in its fourth Websterian sense; in fact, I can see that minute hand or hour hand touching the pip that marks the hour (etc.); I can see the second hand tripping its way around the outer circle of little pips. Are you punctual? That would mean that when the play begins at 8 p.m., you are in your seat and ready for the show when the little hand is on the 8 and the big hand becomes exactly vertical.

And when I mean “punctilious,” I say “punctilious.” I myself am fairly punctilious when it comes to, um, punctuation.

Webster’s gives a conceptual meaning to lead off its definition of punctuation: “the act of punctuating: the state of being punctuated.” The second definition emphasizes the “art or practice” of inserting punctuation marks. So we go to punctuate and find that its nearest root is the Middle Latin punctuatus, past participle of punctuare, to point, from Latin punctus. To punctuate is “to mark or divide (written matter) with punctuation marks.” Figuratively it can also mean “to break into or interrupt at intervals,” as in Edith Wharton’s “the steady click of her knitting needles punctuated the silence.”

My student didn’t know a word that would mean “punctuation-rules-related” knowledge, so, probably unwittingly, he went all the way to the root of the matter and put his adjectival ending on “punct.” And why not? I found it resourceful. The fact that it was also CONFUSING is the problem, of course.

I will not go on to speculate about the strategic nature of punctuation tasks, but while we’re on the subject of resourcefulness, I think we should take a look at that “daughnting.”

We all have speaking or listening vocabularies that are larger than, or in some ways different from, our writing vocabularies. He has heard the word “daunting,” I am sure. But when it comes to deploying it himself, he is unsure, and this was an in-class impromptu, no SpellCheck available with the click of a mouse. What to do?

He could have substituted a word he knew he could spell. But I like the word “daunting,” and I’ll bet he does too, at least in the sentence he wanted to write. So, my lad, Sound It Out.

The cluster “aunt” should have come to him if he can spell “flaunting,” or “taunting,” or at least “haunting.” But “aunt” as a stand-alone word is less reliable as a pronunciation guide: from New Jersey, I pronounce it just the way I pronounce those insects that swarm all over the picnic blanket, or my kitchen floor on rainy summer days; many people from Connecticut, where we currently are, seem to sigh with pleasure when referring to their ahnts; the British seem to have some regrets, since they also have awnts. Did this variability give my student pause?

Daughtr…caught…taught…now, that’s a consistent pattern. Is THAT how “gh” crept into the relatively uncluttered “daunt”?

He was being punctilious on the basis of the wrong set of points.

“This passage discusses the main ideas of life, death and suicide.

Here’s a very good argument for retaining the use of the “Oxford comma” (also called the Harvard comma, so elites of both major English-speaking cultures are represented!)—the comma preceding “and” in a series.

Whatever the passage my student was referring to, if she meant her sentence to present a series, the themes of the passage are sweeping, to say the least: Life! Death! Suicide! In other words, all of existence, all of the cessation of existence, and at least one means of transition between the two.

But there’s no comma before the “and,” and so she may not be presenting a series at all; she may be offering a parenthetical clarification: The passage discusses the main ideas of life, which are death and suicide. Here’s a very pessimistic outlook, indeed, wherein most of life is spent contemplating its end and the means to the end.

I don’t really care that in many series the reader knows what the writer means with or without the comma. I can contemplate the sun, moon, and stars; I can contemplate the sun, moon and stars. Any confusion?

On the other hand, “and” occurs in a lot of phrases that can be compound or separate entities. If I bring Scotch and sodas to my guests, am I delivering mixed drinks or alternatives? How about if I serve them wine, Perrier, gin and tonic, Scotch and soda? Hah!

I have several friends who have been cherishing weird news since long before “News of the Weird” became a feature in alternative newspapers; I’m sure you also have such friends, or even ARE such a one. A favorite such story of mine is that of a man who had shot (and killed) his wife, and had received a light sentence. Since the setting was Texas, this fact alone is interesting. His explanation was probably what persuaded the judge to go easy on him: His wife had served him a casserole, after he had repeatedly told her he liked his food “separate.”

Well, that’s how I feel about commas.

What’s the quickest, surest way to teach college students to punctuate? Had they been paying attention in grade school, or even high school, they would have had a chance to learn the “rules” of punctuation (if such things are still taught). Better, had they been avid and attentive readers, particularly of fiction and poetry, they would probably have absorbed good punctuation practices without the impediment of rules and exceptions. But both these learning processes require time. Once students have arrived in college they don’t have much leisure for these basic lessons—even in writing classes we have bigger flounders to fry: analysis, argument, evidence, and clarity.

The quickest way I’ve found is singing—well, sort-of singing. I take one class session to demonstrate for them the vocal behavior represented by each punctuation mark. Punctuation, after all, serves the same purpose in representing speech that rests, accent marks, and note-duration indicators serve in representing music. What’s the difference between a simple descending major scale and “Joy to the World, The Lord Is Come”? Phrasing. Emphasis, duration, and silence. What’s the difference between “I’m hungry! Let’s eat Grandma” and “I’m hungry! Let’s eat, Grandma”? Phrasing. Emphasis, duration, and silence. Once we practice the sounds and silences of punctuation for awhile, we read aloud, and then note the relationship between the phrasing of the sentence and the meaning of the sentence. Then I tell them to listen when they write.

I started doing this with a student many many years ago who was sent to me in the English department’s Writing Clinic by his Creative Writing professor, with this note: “HELP! This kid can’t punctuate to save his soul!” Knowing I couldn’t get very far very fast by reviewing rules, I scrounged around in my own experience and thought of the music analogy. He didn’t play an instrument, but he could sing a little. I spent a total of an hour with him. Two weeks later I ran into his professor. “What did you do with Eric?” he asked. “It’s a miracle. He makes NO errors. The rhythm of his writing has even gotten more interesting.” So I keep doing it. The approach seems to have a higher “success” rate than other methods, at least in my hands.

So: if you hear it, mark it. And by this one “rule” of punctuation, just about every series needs the comma before the “and.”

Perhaps my “main ideas of life” student was not writing a series; perhaps she was a hopeless pessimist. On the basis of a single sentence I can’t really tell. But in a world where the Oxford comma was the standard practice, I would know right away.

“He will be brought up in a suitable environment…”

My student is writing about the case of a young woman who, needing money for college (you have to sympathize with that), agreed to be artificially inseminated and bear a child for the biological father and his wife—but after the birth refused to part with the little boy.

The essays on this subject tended toward the impassioned-but-inarticulate, and I jotted down a lot of spectacular sentences.

What interests me most about the example here is its diction. In fact, my student made no errors whatsoever, unless the reader is, like me, determined to preserve the so-called Oxford comma even though Oxford University has itself become so foolish as to make it a judgment call. But her sentence makes clear that good writing requires a lot more than correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

What is remarkable about what follows is not the correctness, but the language choices. A perfectly reasonable beginning suddenly tilts, with “suitable environment” as the fulcrum, into the voice of a Chamber of Commerce or realtor’s brochure.

She’s arguing that the contract should be upheld and the child should be part of his father’s family. After all, she reasons, the biological mother is still in school, in need of money, uncertain of her future. The father and his wife are a prosperous and stable couple living in a good neighborhood and eager to give a child the good life they clearly can afford.

Reading this sentence, wouldn’t you feel the appeal? Here we go:

“He will be brought up in a suitable environment with convenient recreational centers, clinics and transportation.”

As the song says, Who could ask for anything more?

“He grew up with an alcoholic dad and a mother who was almost never home, until the age of eight when they both died.”

At last a student who can spell “mother,” and chooses to; but lo and behold, he can’t think of the word “father,” evidently. Does he intend to suggest that the subject of his sentence (alas, I have forgotten whom my student is writing about, and a hasty Google for “writer” and “alcoholic father” brings up an amazing number of possibilities!) was closer to his father than to his mother? Or possibly my student himself is closer to his father than to his mother. Certainly the use of an intimate term for the he-parent and a formal term for the she-parent raises this possibility. For the famous author in question, we can then picture dear old Dad lolling around the house in an alcoholic stupor but accessible to Sonny, and Mother out of the house day and night, a virtual stranger.

The tale is sad with or without the possible parental preference. But the sentence is sadder still.

The boy grew up until the age of eight. That’s what the sentence says. What he did thereafter is left for us to imagine. Did he arrest his development, remaining intellectually or emotionally eight years old for the rest of his life? We have to assume his physical growth was not arrested: even the death of both parents isn’t trauma sufficient to achieve such a corporal result. Probably he continued to grow up, but where and how are not addressed.

And WHO was at the age of eight, come to think of it? A comma sits there in the sentence but is being asked to do more than it is capable of (possibly too young also?). I know my student hoped the comma would enable the reader to see that parents died when the BOY was eight; but the nouns preceding “until the age of eight” are “dad” and “mother,” not “boy” (he). The reader is therefore free to assume that the parents died at the age of eight. If they were parents at the age of eight, I’d say they had every right to drink, or to wander around the neighborhood. Without the comma the sentence would have to be read to say that the mother was “almost never home until the age of eight,” and she would therefore certainly be a little kid, with a husband probably about the same age. My student flings in that comma like a tiny life-preserver for his sentence—but it doesn’t really look like a life-preserver, being only part of a circle, and I’m not sure I can let it succeed.

To be fair, I must admit that “until the age of eight” is an adverbial prepositional phrase (answers “when” about the verb) and therefore properly modifies “grew up”; thus the boy is eight when his parents die. Of course I knew what he meant, and his grammar actually means that too.

But the word order distracts my perfect parsing—”grew up” is SO far away from “until the age of eight,” and the verb phrase “was never home” is just itching to be modified by the phrase that follows it.  And “when they both died” clearly does refer to “dad and “mother,” and “age of eight” comes right after “mother” and therefore seems to modify her as well. A reader encountering this sentence for the first time is fully justified in getting lost in it, and imagining little kids (one a wino) parenting (!) somebody who actually grows up; he will walk beside their tiny coffins and then get on with his life.

Thursdays are always confusing: so near to, and yet so far from, the weekend.

“…microscopes which will increase the number of jobs…”

My thoughts today are on an omitted comma.

“The objective is to manufacture biomedical supplies such as optical devices, prepared slides, and microscopes which will increase the number of jobs available for city residents.”

This is from another essay on the co-op farm in a city one of my students referred to as “New Heaven.” (That goes along, perhaps, with a senator who used to represent Connecticut: as one student named him, Christ Dodd…)

Among the enterprises city planners hoped to attract to their planned development was the manufacture of biomedical supplies. We speculated in class about what that term might comprise, and the student here incorporated some of those specifics. But she also incorporated an adjective clause, and that was her downfall.

I continue to distinguish between “which” and “that” as the pronoun beginning an adjective clause, generally assigning “which” to nonrestrictive (“defining,” in my lingo) clauses and “that” to restrictive (“specifying”) clauses. This differentiation can be associated with the correct punctuation for the type of adjective clause—comma with “which” and no comma with “that.”

A comma to accompany the “which” in this passage would go part of the way toward improving the clarity of the utterance, but we would still have a question: to what noun does the “which” refer? What is the adjective clause modifying? We don’t really have a lot of choices: either “objective” or one of the specific biomedical supplies. By position, so crucial an issue for adjectives, even with the comma the adjective clause has to modify “microscopes.” If we try to associate it with “objective” we are thwarted not only by the sentence order but also by the fact that an objective per se cannot increase the number of jobs, although the objective might be to increase the number of jobs. This is a “you knew what I meant!” moment, for sure. And my reply is the same as ever: “Of course I knew what you meant. That’s how I knew you didn’t say it.”

The grammar of the sentence dictates that those microscopes will increase the number of jobs, and that’s what makes the sentence so peachy. Considering the employment picture of today, we might need a microscope to find the jobs, especially in an inner-city area. Good old microscopes, which make tiny things visible to the naked eye: in a sense, they make tiny things bigger. Well, at least the tiny things look bigger.

Microscopes don’t generally increase the number of things under the lens, though, in appearance or in reality.

Still, we might recommend to politicians that in addition to smoke and mirrors they might want to employ microscopes in this electoral cycle, to give the public a sense that the number of jobs is growing, or that it would be growing under their plan. Sure looks bigger, and isn’t that what you want to think they mean?