Apr 17, 2002 05:13 PM
IN PRAISE OF THE HUMBLE COMMA
The gods, they say, give breath, and they take it away. But the same could
be said ----could it not? ---of the humble comma. Add it to the present
clause , and, of a sudden, the mind is, quite literally, given pause to
think; take it out if you wish or forget it and the mind is deprived of a
resting place. Yet still the comma gets no respect. It seems just a slip of a
thing, a pedant's tick, a blip on the edge of our conciousness, a kind of
printer's smudge almost. Small, we claim, is beautiful (especially in the age
of microchip). Yet what is so often used, and so rarely recalled, as thecomma
---unless it be breath itself?
Punctuation, one is taught, has a point: to keep up law and order.
Punctuation marks are road signs placed along the highway of our communcation
---to control speeds, to provide directions and to prevent head-on
collisions. A period has the unblinking finality of a red light; the comma is
a flashing yellow light that asks us only to slow down; and the semicolon is
a stop sign that tells us to ease gradually to a halt, before gradually
starting up again. By establishing the relations between words, punctuations
establishes the relations between the people using words. That may be one
reason why schoolteachers exalt it and lovers defy it ("We love each other
and belong to each other let's don't ever hurt each other Nicole let's don't
ever hurt each other," wrote Gary Gilmore to his girlfriend). A comma , he
must have known, "separates inseparables," in the clinching words of H.W.
Fowler, King of English Usage.
--------------------break (article cont)
Punctuation , then, is a matter of care. Care for words, yes, but also, and
more important, for what the words imply. Only a lover notices the small
things: the way the afternoon light catches the nape of the neck, or how a
strand of hair slips out from behind an ear , or the way a finger curls
around a cup. And no one scans a letter so closely a s alover, searching for
its small print, straining to hear its nuances, its gasps, its sighs and
hesitations , poring over the secret messages that lie in every cadence. The
difference between "Jane(whom I adore)" and "Jane, whom I adore," and the
difference between them both and "Jane ---whom I adore ---" marks all the
difference between ecstasy and heartache. "No iron can pierce the heart with
such force as a period put at just the right place," in Isaac Babel's lovely
words; a comma can let us hear a voice break, or a heart. Punctuation , in
fact, is a labor of love. Which brings us back, in a way, to gods.
Pico Iyer(free lance writer for Time magazine)
The above is taken from a somewhat larger article of the same name.
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