Stop taking away my punctuation!

I’m proofing galleys for an essay which is set to appear in a general interest magazine. I have a disagreement with the editor (which, ultimately, he will win, because he’s the editor and I’m just the writer). But in this case, I’m not sure he’s right.

My main point of contention (I’ve already ceded the point on abbreviating some of the months, and using digits for the number ten in a conversational piece) is the use (or his avoidance) of commas. I’m bringing them to you, the general editing/writing/reading public, for your opinions (not that anything is going to change).

The first sentence is an introduction to the piece. It reads “[the subject of this essay] was also an on-and-off member of [the organization] starting in 1962 and [the organization]’s Honorary Vice President from 1974 to 1989.” I contend that a comma after 1962 is appropriate, in part because there are way too many words in that sentence to not take a breath in the middle. He says “I’m unclear why there would be a comma here. You place commas after only full dates, and there’s no independent clause.”

The other sentence concerns my meeting the person being discussed. Describing our introduction, I wrote “We laughed and were friends for the next three years.” I want a comma after the word laughed, because we did not laugh for the next three years. He says “Two dependent clauses/compound predicate so no comma is needed.”

In response, I said:

I tend to punctuate based on more lyrical or poetic rules. Specifically, commas go where I pause for breath when reading aloud. So in the introductory paragraph, there is always a pause after “1962”. And that pause comes about because it’s two different thoughts.

In the other sentence, the comma belongs because we didn’t laugh for three years. We laughed, and then were friends for three years. I’ve elided the word “then,” but not the pause.

I understand the concept of a house style. In this case, however, I don’t like the way it looks, abbreviating some of the months’ names when writing out dates, but not others, and not when there’s no date number present. It’s not a choice I would make. Also, my house style is to spell out numbers up to twenty, and then use digits beyond that (although in dialogue and dialogue-ish situations, I’ll spell out as much as I can, because people speak words, not digits). But this isn’t my house, it’s yours. So I’m just urging, but I’ll knuckle under.

He responded:

I’m not convinced we should ignore correct punctuation and house style here.

We’re not employing some arbitrary rules. We’re applying accepted rules of English, which is what readers of the magazine expect. They don’t see a pause; they see an error then question why the magazine would make a mistake. Then they’ll write me about it, and I’ll reply, “No, it’s not an error; sure, technically, a comma doesn’t need to be there, but the author wanted you to pause.” Then they’ll reply, “Oh, OK, cool. I don’t really care about punctuation anyway.” Kidding, they won’t say that. That’s not to say writers can’t take occasional liberties with punctuation, only that we want to avoid placing exceptions in a way that it looks like we’re committing an error. Our readers don’t like errors.

Likewise, we’re not applying some personal house style of mine; we’re using AP Style, which should be pretty familiar to readers because that’s the style the magazine has used for longer than I’ve been editor, and it’s the style used by countless other periodicals.

Sorry, I don’t think we should make these changes.

Obviously, nothing I can say (and nothing you suggest) will change his mind to insert those “missing” commas. But I’m interested in the discussion. AP Style, to my thinking, is written mostly for news, and like computerized grammar-check programs, does an adequate job also for business writing. But for fiction, it is not—I contend—the be-all and end-all authority. And essays, to my mind, fall somewhere in between news and fiction. (Also, I was raised with the Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk & White, rather than AP.)

The death of punctuation, however, seems to me a problem against which to rail. Punctuation is not an annoyance, not a mistake. Punctuation is there to convey the author’s idea of those words on the page. We use words to communicate ideas, and we also use pauses to help clarify that communication (see, for example, the lacuna, and ignore those who only communicate via text message and tweet). Are commas dying? Are we comma-users fighting the last battle to retain our punctuation marks? Is this another point that my family will soon be calling an amusing quirk? Or can we pause, just long enough, to retain our critically important diacritical marks? (And yes, I know that’s a misuse of the word “diacritical”.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s