1. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    New Yorker article mostly on comma use

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by minstrel, Feb 26, 2015.

    For those who are interested, the latest issue of The New Yorker has a great article in it called "Holy Writ" by Mary Norris. Mary Norris has been a copy editor at The New Yorker for about three decades and knows pretty much everything about punctuation, especially commas. In fact, she's referred to as the magazine's "comma queen." It's a fascinating read. It's not entirely about commas, but it goes into pretty deep detail on them, using examples from the stories and articles the magazine has published (and that she worked on) during her career.

    Here's the link: Holy Writ, by Mary Norris.

    I hope the link works for you guys. I subscribe to the magazine, and I don't know if that gives me access denied to non-subscribers.
     
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  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    It let me view the article. :) Great link. ;)
     
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  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I found some of the comma usage in that article a bit odd. But what do I know? I'm just a comma peasant.
     
  4. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'm a bit more relaxed about comma usage than Mary Norris is, too, but her day job is to adhere to the "house style" of the New Yorker. I like the New Yorker, but sometimes their house style is a bit stiff to me. It's formally immaculate, but a bit stiff. ;)
     
  5. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, I enjoyed reading that! And I'm in the UK, and it came through just fine.

    She points out that commas are NOT an exact science, no matter how many exact scientists try to tell you they are. However, they are not seasoning either, to be sprinkled about willy-nilly. Each comma usage requires thought, especially in instances that aren't 'common.'

    I love this quote from the article (underlining is mine):

    I decided to write to James Salter and ask him about his commas. He wrote back:

    “I sometimes ignore the rules about commas although generally I follow convention and adhere to the advice in Strunk and White. Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences. You don’t get permission for this, of course; you take the liberty.”


    That seems to sum it up for me, as applied to creative writing.

    I remember having an disagreement with a beta reader regarding one of my sentences in my story. The sentence indicated that somebody got a "short sharp shock." My beta pointed out that—quite rightly—there should have been a comma between "short" and "sharp." So I apologised and put it in there, as directed. However, as I read through the passage a few times afterward, I found myself getting snagged on that danged comma. It was grammatically correct ...but it just didn't convey the notion of short sharp shock that I wanted. In fact, it diluted the effect altogether. Eventually I took the comma back out again. (It's buried deep in the middle of my story, so I don't think it's going to make any of my grammar guru readers throw the book away in disgust.) A quote like the above from James Salter reinforces my feeling that I did the right thing.

    There is also the issue of absolute clarity. Sometimes you can get away with not using the "Oxford Comma" (the one that gets automatically inserted before the "and" that concludes a list.) Other times not. It's all down to how the reader will perceive what you're trying to say. So each instance of comma usage need to be thought out, in ways our grammar teachers didn't usually point out.

    This article is written by a proofreader who works for The New Yorker, so it's worth noting that even in that 'exact science' there are exceptions to 'rules.'
     
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  6. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Do you mean:

    "I'm just a, peasant."
     
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  7. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    That was my favorite part, too! I thought it was interesting that a comma queen would actually write to an author to inquire about his use of a few commas, and I was a bit surprised that he took the time to write back and explain his intent. Maybe he was just paying a professional courtesy, knowing that she wasn't just an idle reader. But the attitude of "You don't get permission for this, of course; you take the liberty" is exactly right!

    This reminds me of that anecdote about Oscar Wilde. Someone asked him how much progress on his work he'd made that day, and he said, "This morning I put in a comma. This afternoon I took it back out."

    I really like that story. ;)
     
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