THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
The Word

The pause that annoys

When a comma makes life needlessly hard

By Jan Freeman
September 12, 2010

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Punctuation, quietly doing its job, rarely arouses the passions of the general public the way buzzwords and mispronunciations do. Yes, certain manly writers enjoy denouncing the wimpy semicolon, and spotting misused apostrophes is a popular pastime. But when you hear people arguing about the serial comma or the overuse of dashes, they’re probably editors.

The folks behind National Punctuation Day, coming up Sept. 24, would like to change that (and sell a few T-shirts). Their previous ploys to raise punctuation awareness have included a baking contest and a recipe for the holiday’s “official” meatloaf (in the all-too-appropriate shape of a question mark). This year’s challenge is a great leap forward in literacy: Readers are invited to compose haiku about (and involving) punctuation. Among the samples at the website:

Are you Brit or Yank? Show me your quotation marks And I’ll tell you which. I won’t be competing for a coffee mug, but NPD seems like the perfect opportunity to explore a subtle rule of punctuation that has probably cost publishers way, way more than its benefit to readers warrants.

You probably know the rule about setting off nonrestrictive elements — the descriptive bits that could be omitted without changing the essential meaning of a sentence — with commas: “The berries, which were moldy, went straight into the compost.” Well, it also applies to words in apposition, which are sometimes restrictive and sometimes not. The Chicago Manual of Style explains it this way: If you write “My older sister, Betty, taught me the alphabet,” you are implying that Betty is your only older sister. But if you write “My sister Enid lets me hold her doll” — with no commas around the name — Enid is not your only sister.

The rule is not hard to apply, if you know Betty and Enid’s sibling situations. But what if you don’t? In a New Yorker article last year, John McPhee remembered facing this problem when fact-checking his 2003 book, “The Founding Fish.” In his draft, he had “Penn’s daughter Margaret fished in the Delaware, and wrote home to a brother asking him to ‘buy for me a four joynted, strong fishing Rod.’ ” But McPhee didn’t know whether Margaret’s name needed commas; was she an only daughter? The punctuation “would, in effect, say whether Penn had one daughter or more than one,” he wrote. “The commas were not just commas; they were facts.”

But were they important facts? It’s easy enough to find out how many children William Penn had (yes, Margaret had a sister). But suppose the father in question was a more obscure figure, or a fictional character. How much time should you spend finding the answer — commas or no commas — to a question nobody’s asking?

As a former editor, I can attest that hours are wasted in researching such trivia. Did your profile subject get a phone call from “his brother Mark” or from “his brother, Mark”? Did she inherit from “her cousin, Mary,” or “her cousin Mary”? The rule even requires that you write “my husband, Dave,” and not “my husband Dave,” because the latter suggests there’s more than one husband.

There’s not a lot of debate about the value of this convention, perhaps because it’s a fairly recent fetish. The New York Times must have been enforcing it in the ’50s, because Timesman Theodore Bernstein, in his 1958 book “Watch Your Language,” treated it as dogma; he objected to a news story’s mention of both “his daughter Zinaida” and “his daughter, Zinaida,” saying “both versions cannot be correct.” But in their Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, published just a year earlier, Bergen and Cornelia Evans were more flexible: “Sometimes the relation between an appositive and the preceding noun is so close that the two form a unified idea, such as the River Tiber and my brother Dick. In this case the commas are not needed.”

Earlier usage bears out the Evanses’ observation. For instance, beginning in 1938, The New Yorker published the embellished memoirs that became the book (and play and movie) “My Sister Eileen.” No other sisters are mentioned, yet the magazine’s editors felt no need to make it “My Sister, Eileen.” As far as I know, J.R. Ackerley had only one dog, but his 1956 memoir (like the current film) is called “My Dog Tulip,” not “My Dog, Tulip.” Misleading? Inaccurate? I don’t think so.

My modest proposal, then, is that we return to the tolerant days of yore, when these familial appositive commas were optional. When it comes to mothers, fathers, and spouses, we can assume people have one each, commas or not, unless we’re told otherwise. As for children and siblings, in-laws and cousins, yachts and cats and gerbils, unless their number is somehow germane to the story, who cares?

Or to put my argument in the preferred form of this year’s Punctuation Day observance:

There’s my sister Peg! — Is that sister, comma, Peg? None of your business.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).