In Celebration of National Punctuation Day

I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.   Gustave Flaubert

Things that make us [sic]Wikihow has published a site suggesting what people might do to observe National Punctuation Day. Don’t get too excited. There are also Wikihows that feature tips on how to celebrate Chocolate Mint Day (treat yourself to a chocolate mint beauty mask), National Battery Day (ask yourself what the world would be like without batteries), and Hobbit Day (throw a Hobbit party for your friends). As there is also a National Grammar Day, founded by Martha Brokenbrough (author of the witty Things That Make Us [Sic] and prime mover of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar), one might wonder if there is a real need to devote a separate day to punctuation, but given the important role it plays in written communications, I think that it doesn’t hurt to address the topic officially once a year.

Smoking pets and bicycles?

Smoking pets and bicycles?

Punctuating a document correctly is not easy, and ferreting out the punctuation errors contained in a text is one of the thorniest parts of a copy editor’s job. Often the concentration required to even think about the subject causes a writer to let other infelicities contained in a document fly by unnoticed. Several days after the Huffington Post ran a short slide show prepared by William B. Bradshaw, the author of The Big Ten of Grammar: Identifying and Fixing the Ten Most Frequent Grammatical Errors, to mark last year’s National Grammar Day, it dutifully published an erratum noting that the author had inadvertently used the word “explanatory” in a slide about exclamation points rather than “exclamatory.” This kind of thing can happen to the best of us.

needs punctuationAs an American translator and copy editor who grew up reading The New Yorker and consults The Chicago Manual of Style on a daily basis, I naturally advocate the use of the Oxford (also known as the serial) comma. For the non-grammarians out there, this is the comma often placed before the conjunction at the end of a list. Apart from the Oxford University Press, most British authorities weigh in against it, and one of the last things I do before delivering a document to a client who has requested that I follow British grammar rules is scan the text to detect any superfluous serial commas I might have subliminally inserted. However, there are situations in which the serial comma is absolutely necessary for clarity. One of the classic examples trotted out in its defense is the hypothetical “I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God,” which without a final clarifying comma gives the impression that the parents of the author writing the dedication were, in fact,  Ayn Rand and God. Misplaced commas can do as much damage or more. In her often hilarious book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss provides  a good example in the form of a joke:

“A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife annual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Original_New_Yorker_coverHarold Ross, founder and long-time editor-in-chief of The New Yorker magazine, was so fond of commas that E. B. White, who had many run-ins with him about comma placement, once quipped, “Commas in The New Yorker fall with a precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” On the other hand, Gertrude Stein considered commas to be “servile” tools and avoiding using them. Both Oscar Wilde and Gustave Flaubert complained that they often spent their mornings putting commas into a text only to spend their afternoons taking them out.

When in doubt about the placement of a comma, it’s a good idea to consult a guide. If you don’t own The Chicago Manual of Style or the Modern Humanities Research Association’s Style Guide, the Grammarly Handbook is a good online resource.