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The Commas Suit Ya

William Burroughs

William S. Burroughs

An interesting Slate piece a few months back by Matthew J.X. Malady noted many Twitter users’ disdain for commas. It’s not just a matter of being frugal with punctuation in order to fit a thought into 140 characters. Punctuational minimalism has emerged as one of the hallmarks of casual online style—social media, texting, commenting, message boards. One inescapable example, which I’ve previously discussed, is the sea change in email greeting from “Hi, Name” to “Hi Name.” This is by no means exclusively the province of kids and illiterates. I recently came on this comment on the philosophy blog LessWrong: “Anyway [no comma] yes [no comma] I can see that teleological capture is problematic. However [no comma] I can’t do away with it completely.” (Exceptions to the minimalism rule are ellipses, question marks, and exclamation points, which have spread online like Asian carp in a predator-free freshwater ecosystem.)

Skilled Twitter users drop commas, in particular, to punch up the comedy. Malady quoted a tweet by the writer Jen Doll on a day that Gmail went down for almost an hour: “I guess all those losers outside skiing or like at the movies or whatever missed out on this exciting adventure we just had.” Another Doll tweet shows that eschewing capital letters can have a similar result: “the kind of tired that involves being too tired to get up and pour yourself more coffee oh tiredness most foul.” Someone else I follow joked: “My mistake of course was foolishly thinking I understood time zones.” (I won’t describe the lead-up to the punch line: It’s not worth the time.) In all those examples, if commas are inserted in the traditional spots,  the tone stiffens and, to some ears, sounds positively Chaucerian.

Malady sees no strong evidence that this trend is spreading to more formal writing, online or otherwise. I generally agree, though I feel like I’m seeing more commas left out after appositives. (“Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize is appearing on campus this semester.”)

In certain quarters, the trend, if anything, is more commas. Dropping the suspense, the quarters I refer to are the offices of The New Yorker, the soon-to-be-90-year-old magazine that is the veritable St. Peter’s Basilica of the comma. For The New Yorker, using this punctuation mark in all generally accepted and even optional spots, including after the penultimate item in a series, goes without saying. The magazine’s secret sauce in generating commas is its extreme strict constructionist view of nonessential (also known as nondefining) elements in a sentence. Consider: “By the time Blockbuster got around to offering its own online subscription service, in 2004, it was too late.” Virtually everybody else would leave out the commas after “service.” The New Yorker insists on it, the logic being that otherwise, the writer would be implying that Blockbuster offered its own online subscription service in years other than 2004.

Some people count sheep to get to sleep. I lie in bed reading New Yorkers on my Kindle, counting the commas. Normally, six or seven in a sentence is a number that allows me to close my eyes and drift off. Imagine my surprise, a couple of months ago, when I came upon this, in a review of a book about William Burroughs.

The biography, after its eventful start, becomes rather like an odyssey by subway in the confines of Burroughs’s self-absorption, with connecting stops in New York, where he lived, in the late nineteen-seventies, on the Bowery, in the locker room of a former Y.M.C.A., and, returning to the Midwest, in the congenial university town of Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his last sixteen years, and where he died, of a heart attack, in 1997, at the age of eighty-three.

That’s right. Sixteen commas. I had the feeling that the magazine’s editors were having a laugh among themselves, which I was lucky enough to share in.

I think so much about  New Yorker commas that sometimes my head gets all in a spin, especially when pondering what I call the prepositional-phrase conundrum. It comes up in a series of prepositional phrases (as in Burroughs’s New York and Kansas experiences, above) or with verb-prepositional-phrase constructions, in cases where the verb is not preceded by a subordinate conjunction, such as the two “where”s in the Burroughs example. Consider these fairly recent quotes from the magazine:

  1. “It first appeared in 1959, in Paris, as ‘The Naked Lunch’ (with the definite article), in an Olympia Press paperback edition, in company with ‘Lolita,’ ‘The Ginger Man,’ and ‘Sexus.’”
  2. “Brigham’s Allentown and Pittsburgh clinics finally closed, in 2012.”
  3.  Robert Frost “was born in 1874 in San Francisco, where his father, William Frost, a newspaperman from primeval New England stock, had taken a job.”

No. 1 (also from the Burroughs review) omits a comma after “appeared.” Presumably that’s because “in 1959″ is considered an essential element, as is “in 1974″ in example No. 3. But why? There was only one year that Naked Lunch first appeared, as there was only one year Robert Frost was born. And sure enough, in example No. 2, recognizing there was only one year that the clinics finally closed, the magazine’s copy desk kept or put in the comma.

But down that road leads madness. Abraham Lincoln died just one time, but even The New Yorker would never print the sentence, “Lincoln died, in 1865.”

Or, would it?

 

 

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