Swans Commentary » swans.com June 17, 2013  



An Uncomma Life


by Jan Baughman





(Swans - June 17, 2013)   It was an interesting year, but one that I don't care to repeat. Some people go a year without television, or a year without chocolate; me, I went a year without a comma. I dare you to even attempt it.

I didn't choose this path, mind you -- it chose me. It began rather innocuously when I attended a professional conference in San Francisco, which, in my profession, amounts to signing up to receive endless telemarketing calls begging for your business, but I digress. I reluctantly gave my business card to various entities, and found myself entered in numerous door-prize drawings. For whatever reason it was my lucky day, and I won 3 of the 5 prizes: a $25 Starbucks gift card, a Coach handbag, and a Kindle Fire, the latter of which led to this fateful, frustrating, comma-free year.

I didn't see much use for the Kindle, though one can download a selection of free books. I chose A Tale of Two Cities, although I have yet to figure out how to properly navigate the pages or place a bookmark, and the fact is I prefer to hold a real book and turn real pages. I downloaded a couple of games to amuse myself during the endless hours I spend in airports and on airplanes; the Weather Channel and a news site; a never-used notepad for important notes to myself; a couple of French lessons and exercises to keep my basic skills and vocabulary honed; and an interval timer for all the physical exercises I don't do.

Then one fine day I was in Boston visiting my friend Beverly, and she introduced me to Words With Friends -- a digital Scrabble game of sorts that I could download on my Kindle and play with her from across the country or wherever I was. I like words, and I really like my friend Bev, so download it I did, and before I knew it I was hooked, and soon also playing with my sister-in-law Beth.

Now, playing Words With Friends with me involves more than just word placements -- you get game-side commentary (one can send messages to one's opponent within the game), complaints about words that are deemed acceptable and words that are not (according to the game rules, they have 173,000 acceptable words -- I could definitely add or subtract a few...), and most often, rants punctuated by complaints about the lack of a comma on my Kindle keyboard.

The Kindle keyboard is a standard QWERTY but with just the alphabet and a period on the primary screen; a toggle button to get numbers and additional punctuation (-, @, #, $, &, etc. from the QWERTY top row, and the question mark, exclamation mark, quotation marks, colon, semicolon, and forward slash); and an additional toggle button for less-standard symbols like pi (I rarely use pi in a sentence, though as a word it's useful in Words With Friends), the British pound and euro symbols, and the infinity symbol, which I use about as often as pi but less often than the comma.

According to a guy who seems quite knowledgeable and interesting, punctuation frequency in the English language is ranked like this, with the almighty comma being Number One:

, . - " _ ' ) ( ; = : / * ! ? $ > { } [ ] \ + | & < % @ # ^ ` ~

I was surprised to learn that the semicolon ranked so low; it's my second-favorite punctuation mark. But there's no debating just how important the comma is. It's used, of course, around interrupting phrases. It's used to separate elements in a series, as in, "She found the period, she found pi, she found infinity, but she could not find the comma." Commas are useful to indicate a pause -- sometimes one can substitute a dash for a comma -- but for most uses, there's just no substitute for the real thing. And commas are fundamental for warding off ambiguity, or introducing it, as in this classic example in Lynne Truss's wonderful book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

"Why?" asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

"Well, I'm a panda," he says. "Look it up."

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. "Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

I recently became increasingly aggravated by my inability to communicate effectively without a comma, so I did a Google search on "Where is the bloody comma on my Kindle?!?". Turns out there are entire discussion boards of kindred, kindled souls out there just like me. There's even a YouTube video with instructions for finding the comma on the Kindle.

Where is it? All this time, it was hiding behind the period -- the second most frequently used punctuation mark in the English language. In order to type a comma, you must hold down the period button. Don't tap on it, just hold it down. Given that the comma is the most frequently used punctuation mark, why on earth is it relegated to second-class status after the period?

Honestly, I don't have the answer. But I can say that my life is more complete now that I've been united with my best punctuation friend. Sure, I'll find something else to rant about. I could go on about the amount of time I spend editing Swans articles, the majority of which involves deleting, inserting, and moving around commas, but I won't. Meanwhile, if you wish to challenge me to a rant-filled, comma-punctuated, Words With Friends game, my handle is jebSF. Game on!


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Jan Baughman on Swans -- with bio. She is Swans co-editor.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art19/jeb254.html
Published June 17, 2013