A version of this column ran in The Virginian-Pilot in December of 2000. Sadly, nothing has changed except that my 6th grader is 30 and I now dutifully return my grocery carts to the designated areas. I still don’t do commas, though. And don’t get me started on semi-colons. (I’ve never used one.)
I got the fright of my life this week.
Thursday night, during the interminable homework hours, my sixth-grader asked for assistance in the lone academic area where I might be expected to show some proficiency: English.
“Help,” she pleaded. “We're having a test tomorrow. On commas.”
I had been confidently on my way to her side when that dreaded word stopped me cold.
I steadied myself. Tried not to hyperventilate.
How do you tell your 12-year-old daughter that her mother - comma - who earns a living as a writer - comma - doesn't know a comma from a carburetor?
I go to great lengths not to use commas when I write. I know it's wrong - comma - but I think of them as grammatical crutches. My technique is to sprinkle a few commas randomly around my copy after I've finished. Sort of a literary garnish - like Baco Bits or festive sprigs of parsley.
James Joyce didn't use commas. Why should I?
Fortunately, after I turn in my column, keen-eyed editors either take my commas out or move them around. Most of the commas you're looking at here were not placed by me. At least not where they appear now.
In that sense, commas are a lot like grocery carts. I always abandon my cart right smack in the middle of the supermarket parking lot - blocking a parking space whenever possible. I don't use those cart corrals because I worry about the folks hired to round them up. If every shopper was a good little citizen and put his back in the right place, the cart cowboys would be out of work.
It's the same with editors. If all writers mastered the art of the comma, the unemployment rolls would swell with out-of-work comma cowboys. Who wants that?
But do editors ever thank writers like me for giving them job security?
In fact, those who have mastered the art of comma-ing seem to regard the rest of us as ignorant.
“Was your mother frightened by a comma when she was pregnant with you?” my grammatically correct colleague Dave Addis once asked with disgust.
Like a recovering alcoholic, I have learned to admit that I have a comma condition. In an attempt to remedy it, a former editor gave me a book entitled “The Comma is Your Friend.”
Like a comma, it was misplaced.
Commas definitely are not my friends. They get in the way of good writing. I try to write short sentences. The shorter the better. Brevity reduces the need for commas. Really.
But my daughter doesn't know this. She likes the idea that her mother is a writer. She assumes I know everything about punctuation.
I didn't want to disappoint her Thursday, so I quickly snatched her grammar book and made some excuse about needing to use the bathroom. Once inside, I sat on the edge of the tub and quickly read the comma chapters. Gosh, so much to learn!
I emerged from my bathroom a smarter person. I had comma confidence.
Afterward, my daughter and I talked commas. I even helped her place a few in sentences.
I'm tempted, to begin writing longer sentences, just so, I can try out, this wonderful, form of punctuation, and show off, my newfound skill.