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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Opinion Column

Be careful where,
you put that comma.

Commentary by BETTY BELL

You’d think I’d be long past the days of worrying about whether to put in a comma here or take one out there, but since I got the job of backing up the real proofreader here at the Express, a man often smitten with an irresistible urge to get up-close and personal with mountains far away, the worry’s back. The correct placement of the comma and its combinations—the period, the semicolon and the colon—is once again giving me fits. There are hard and fast punctuation commandments set forth in many punctuation bibles, but for every commandment there seems to be a "yeahbut." Punctuation rules are like those congressional bills with so many riders that the meaning’s buried.

I used to read to get caught up in the story, but I don’t give a whit about the story line now. Now I zero in on the spelling ... on the punctuation ... on the typos. The trouble is, I’m in way over my head, and all because of circumstances beyond my control. When I was in grade school our family moved so often we should have been issued gypsy green cards. Almost every year I checked out of one Catholic school and into another, and every one of those moves seemed timed to miss the crucial sessions on the stuff and substance that make up a sentence, stuff then taught through diagramming--a nightmare method wherein Sister Mary Fidelis, or Sister Mary Magdalene, or Sister Whoever—one as terrifying as the other—would, in perfect Palmer-method script, write a book-length sentence on the blackboard, turn her laser look to the class, and hand the chalk to the victim chosen to diagram it. With slashes and sub-slashes all over the board, the chosen one would lay out every word so that the mystery of how the whole thing was put together was revealed. I never remember a classmate who couldn’t march to the board and with almost manic glee rip that sentence apart and bare its innards for all the enlightened to see—meaning for all to see but me.

Can you imagine my terror? Sitting there as small as I could make myself, dreading the terrible moment when Sister would hand me the chalk and send me to the board where I’d clinch forever the title Dumbbell Queen.

I know in my very bones that the lucky kids who learned to diagram never forgot it. I bet that today, even Glen Mitchell, the meanest, toughest kid of any school ever, could swagger to the blackboard and diagram a sentence that would not only bare its skeleton but also repair every errant participle that dared to dangle.

I never did get called on, a blessing surely attributable to my gypsy green card; surely, the next day when I’d have been singled out was the very day I transferred to my next school.

There’s much talk about leaving no child behind, but if schools were closed today because kids couldn’t diagram sentences, it’d be voucher-time big-time. Diagramming fell from favor about the time nuns quit wearing their own unique burkas, and the parts of speech and punctuation are taught in a much kinder and gentler way now. But I think that the trauma of the blackboard-center-stage-diagram-method was the best way—no contest—to make grammar lessons stick.

These days, when I proofread, I’m cheered when I come upon the whimsical punctuation marks—the exclamation point and dash, and those rat-tailed dot variations—the semicolon and colon. There’s a lot of room for creative thinking with the whimsical marks. The exclamation point, for instance, is so totally personal—no hard and fast rule governs their use. One throws one in when it suits one! I don’t think a proofreader dare shoulder the responsibility of determining whether or not a statement is worthy of the exclamation mark! And the dash—good heavens—personally, I’d never get by if I couldn’t use one—the dash, that is—as often as the mood strikes me. The semicolon and colon seem naturally to be sparingly used. I think a writer uses a semicolon or colon only when she’s in one of her rare and fleeting states of exuberance—or maybe at the peak of her caffeine high. Suddenly and confidently she’ll hit the semicolon key, and lo, it is precisely the right thing to do. I wouldn’t change a semicolon for the world, but, no question about it, I’m still insecure with commas. I’ve figured out a test that seems to work for me: If I can read the sentence through with fluidity and ease, if I can stay oblivious to the commas, or lack thereof, then surely all is well. I do believe that all writers harbor extremely possessive feelings about their commas, and they find it ever-so-hard to accept even an ever-so-slight tinkering.

Every once in awhile, however, I do come across a sentence that cries out for help no matter whom I might offend. Here’s one: The president said Kerry should swap all his swagger for a dollop of wisdom.

Even a gypsy girl on the road all through Grammar 101 knows it’s gotta read: The President, said Kerry, should swap all his swagger for a dollop of wisdom.

Ah—such truth and revelation in proper punctuation.


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