Comma knowledge

At the age of 10 years old, I spent a solemn few days at school exchanging a pencil for a pen. This was a threshold, a write of passage -sorry- as it were, for it felt as though we were transitioning from children into something greater, a kind of participation in the adult world of permanency and real script. We were provided with fountain pens and taught how to hold them, how to change the cartridges, and, above all, to appreciate the feel of the tool and what it could do. Fountain pens were viewed as old-fashioned even then and I’m sure my school was one of the last bastions holding out against the barbarism of the ballpoint, itself to fall prey to the printer. However, I’ve never lost the sheer sensual experience of using a fountain pen and my first was very similar to the image below. It is not for nothing that writing has been compared to an act of love-making whose procreation results in a new life, with a destiny of its own, and the erotic suggestion of the phallic pen spilling its ink on the blank page (page vierge or virginal page in French) is obvious. Yet it is also a relationship that seems rooted firmly and definitively in the past.

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I was reflecting earlier that the only time that I ever use a pen these days is to sign a debit-card slip, and then only in the US. This makes me a little sad but at the same time increases my respect for this writing implement. If a fountain pen is used properly, it will feel as if part of the hand and allow for graceful -and, more importantly, natural- movements. A ballpoint pen is a utilitarian thing, possessing neither grace nor pedigree, with its whole existence being based on ease, like a carpet slipper or a cupholder. People often complain that ebooks will never replicate paper books, but they are making the wrong argument; the truly tragic loss is not the medium in which we read but rather the method in which we write. Being a Catholic, hypocrisy and guilt come easier to me than most, and I am certainly not blameless when it comes to penmanship. All of my classes have been paperless for the past four years (assignments, handouts, exams), but at times I pause and feel the sense of loss of the connection with paper and ink, which is really a connection with nature. The indelible character of ink means that you have to think out your ideas instead of shooting off e-mails in the throes of pettiness and while we might mishandle our electronic devices, a careless attitude to a fountain pen will result in ink on our clothes and skin, or a broken nib. I always liked the counsel of never letting anyone use your personal fountain pen as the nib had become accustomed to the precise manual pressure of your dominant hand. The pen demands fidelity from its custodian, and nothing less than this.

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One of the most straightforward marks to make with a fountain pen is the comma. And let it be said that it is surely the most pleasing of all punctuation, with its attractive curve tailing off as well as its function of marking a pause, of allowing us to catch our breath, to ponder, and to have a little moment in the midst of the clamour of grammar. Punctuation seems to bring out the best and the worst of it and while its primary function is to enable us to use a written system of communication, I secretly though strongly suspect that it was devised by a cabal of pedants for the sole purpose of inflicting correction and misery on the rest of us. Pedants are an annoying breed and are more numerous than we’d like to believe, for it is a sad fact that there is a pedant hiding inside all of us, awaiting her or his moment of liberation. As well as being the most attractive punctuation mark, the comma is the most common. Its use might seem to be uncomplicated, but as a journal editor I can assure you that this is not always the case. I insist on the use of the Oxford comma from my contributors only for consistency’s sake, since it can eliminate ambiguity. The most striking example of where this would be so comes from the Times, which summarized a documentary about Sir Peter Ustinov with the judgement that “highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”. The lack of a final comma after “demigod” leaves the impression that Mr Mandela is eight centuries old and has an unusual hobby. Things are never easy with grammar, however, and there are also occasions on which employing the serial comma will create ambiguity, such as “I wrote to the bishop, John Smith, and the pastor”. This could imply that the prelate was named John Smith, so omitting the comma altogether would eliminate the ambivalence. The most readable book in this area has to be Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves: A Zero Approach to Punctuation, whose author goes out equipped with a marker pen to write in missing apostrophes on street and store signs. I think the award for punniest title must go to M. B. Parkes’s surprisingly enjoyable Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West.

ImageNow none of this is riveting or of any great consequence for decent people living in normal society, except that sometimes punctuation can have very serious results. The photograph above is of Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916) who was executed for treason by the British during the unjust occupation of Ireland, a man who was popularly said to have been “hanged on a comma”. The Irish-born Casement was a nationalist though worked for the British government as consul, being knighted for his services. He was implicated in the Easter Rising though the charges related to a period during which he had been in Germany. The wording of the Treason Act of 1351 was that treason was committed “if a man do levy war against our Lord the King in his realm, or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere”. The state successfully argued that the comma before “or elsewhere” meant that it could apply to the first part of the sentence rather than simply the aiding and comforting of the King’s enemies, and therefore Casement could have committed treason outside of British soil. The presence of the comma allowed for this grey area to be argued to the point where it cost Casement his life, though he was finally given a state funeral five decades later in 1965, metamorphosing from betrayer to national hero. Nowhere is punctuation seen to be as deadly as in the academy and in the law. Casement’s fellow countryman Oscar Wilde had a more casual relationship with the point. When asked what he had been toiling on, Wilde replied “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma”. When queried about what he had been occupied with during the afternoon, he answered “In the afternoon – well, I put it back again”.

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My favourite occurrence of the comma has nothing to do with punctuation but rather is to be found with the comma butterfly, the common name for the Polygonia c-album, above, so named for the white comma that is on the underside of its wings, a rather curious marking. As to the etymology of the comma, it comes from the Latin word comma which denotes a short phrase or clause. There is a singular irony in our appropriation of the word for the punctuation mark, since Latin was a language blessed without punctuation, the verb indicating where sentences were to end.

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Today’s cufflinks evoke a comma, to me. They are made out of sterling silver and bear the maker’s mark of Joseph Skinger. This artist worked in Vermont from 1946 to 1967, though this pair exudes the distinct flavour of the 1950s Modernist movement. Above all, to me the comma serves as a metaphor for the necessity of punctuating daily tedium with moments of introspection and, more importantly, reflection. As with the cufflinks themselves, simplicity is often the most noble and most beautiful of traits.

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One comment on “Comma knowledge

  1. Glad to see these cufflinks my father made nicely written about. The line was called Mountain Shadow. all hand cut and soldered. But I totally see the comma!

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