Thursday, April 14, 2011

Work in Progress: Commas, Do They, Matter?

I’ve been rather obsessed with commas this semester of teaching. Across the board, I’ve been finding a lack of knowledge about some basic rules. I’m always lenient in terms of stylistic deviations and the assumption that everyone will make a few errors in a piece that was most likely pulled off the printer shortly before it was due, but there are far too many situations where it’s clear that, simply put, the graduate student writer didn’t know the rule that he/she was breaking. As T.S. Eliot said, “It's not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.” (I love the restraint of that, “wise,” as I might choose a more pointed word: “disastrous.”)

So I’ve been ranting. I’ve copied pages of grammar handbooks. I did an in-class exercise. My circles on the page get bigger and bigger and bigger—I slash “incorrect!” across the offending comma. The error that seems to be the most prevalent and that I’ve chosen to focus on is the comma splice, most commonly occurring during the lack of a coordinating conjunction between main clauses, or the improper addition of a comma when the second main clause isn’t, well, a main clause (my grammar book calls that a “linking parts of a compound predicate,” but that sounds scary).


The dog ran into the house, the cat ran into the yard. INCORRECT!
The dog ran into the house, and the cat ran into the yard. SMILEY FACE
The dog ran into the house, and ran through the kitchen. INCORRECT!
The dog ran into the house, and it ran through the kitchen. SMILEY FACE
The dog ran into the house and ran through the kitchen. SMILEY FACE

It’s heartening to see that the students agree: they take my rants in good humor and sincerely want to know more about proper usage. There’s been genuine interest in an afternoon grammar refresher course. I agree that it’s daunting to think about reading a grammar book (I could barely even type “compound predicate” without yawning). I admit to learning what I know—remember, I’m certainly not a copy-editor—when I taught freshman comp the first time, one testbook chapter ahead of the students. But we’re writers: how can we be good writers if we don’t even know and understand the tools we have at our disposal? It’s like a handyman/woman who doesn’t know the difference between a Philips screwdriver and the other kind. (Ha—see? Would you hire me to build your bookshelf?)

Part of the problem as I see it is at the graduate student level, I shouldn’t find myself focusing on copy-editing (or teaching rules of comp). There’s only so much energy I can devote to a manuscript, and I don’t want to spend this so-called wisdom of mine on commas…I’m assuming people would rather know my opinion of the death at the ending or whether the characters jump alive.

So, then…don’t focus on that. Let the errors stand. And the problem with that is that at a certain point, the errors become so distracting that I literally can’t read the material. Literally.  So that leads me to wonder, who’s more patient, sweet teacher me, or distracted literary journal editor with a stack of manuscripts to read? Yikes.

Confession: I’ve never been one to worry about understanding HOW or WHY some system is, the story behind the rules. In math, all I wanted to know was the rules I needed to follow to get the correct answer. In grammar, just tell me how it works and let me memorize it. I don’t like words like “compound predicate.”

So for me, this rant is not about exploring the joys of grammar. It’s about learning a few simple, basic rules so that they become second nature, so you don’t need to think about them. And why do this? Again, a simple answer:

A few years ago, I was chatting with an editor from The Gettysburg Review, one of my favorite literary journals, and—in the throes of a crises about a lack of proof-reading in my students’ work—I asked him if he really, truly would stop reading if he saw typos and/or errors. The immediate, “Yes,” was so casual yet forceful that even though that was the answer I was expecting and even wanted, I was still shocked at his cavalier attitude, so I pushed harder: “Really? I mean, just one thing? Aren’t you afraid you might miss something good?” He said, “Leslie, I read 8,000 manuscripts a year. It’s really not that big of a deal.”

Don’t give them an easy reason to say no!

And don’t even get me started on hyphens. That’s a battle for another semester.

You can read another editor’s thoughts about usage here:


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.