To comma, or not to comma: that is the question(mark)

When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher, Mrs. Umeck, gave us a first-year college grammar exam…just for fun. I was the only student in my class of 30 to pass the test, and I passed it with a 100% at that. I suppose that should have been my first sign that not everyone understood grammar – that it was as complicated and elusive as Algebra or Physics. And while I’ve grown to understand this, I still cringe when I see an egregious grammatical mistake.

Don’t get me wrong, though! I’m not judging when I’m reading a rough draft of a novel, or a novel in general. Typos happen, things fall through the cracks, schools of thought vary from time to time…in an 80,000 word manuscript, I don’t  get obsessed.

But! When I’m walking down the street and see a one-line sign that has a glaring grammatical error…Well, there’s a part of me that wants to take a magic marker — or eraser, depending on the situation — to it. And another part of me that’s proud that I know it’s wrong. There’s one I have to stare at every single day on my subway commute: No eating, drinking on Path. Unfortunately, and very much to my chagrin, the sign is too high up for me to reach without standing on the seats.

Now, I know I’m not perfect — I know my copy-editor friend finds plenty of errors for me — but I do pride myself on having a pretty good grasp of English grammar. And when I’m feeling down about my writing, I can at least say to myself, “At least I know when to use a comma and when to use a semi-colon!” *sigh* Sad, but true :)

But I’m curious…Am I alone in this? Are there other people who are OCD about grammar? Do you have an example of a street sign that drives you insane? Or do you prefer not to let technicalities bog you down when you’re writing? And are you now thinking, “Wow! This girl is insane!” LOL!

Jerrica Knight-Catania is the author of  A Gentleman Never Tells, soon to be published by Second Wind Publishing.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “To comma, or not to comma: that is the question(mark)

  1. I got caught out by English and American grammar being slightly and obscurely different; rather like English and American spelling I guess. But those signs that are wrongly written get to me too. Still, think of all the laughs we’d miss if they got them all right.

  2. Lucy Balch

    Aren’t rules about commas sometimes slippery? My sister, a copy editor, tells me that some people do commas one way (not the best way in her mind) but she prefers the “better” way!?
    I think I place commas depending on the weather outside. It feels that arbitrary at times. Commas are definitely not one of my talents, and I never see signs that bother me! You’re lucky you “get” them.

  3. My pet peeve is “Ten items or less” This seems like such an easy distinction between less and fewer and yet this sign is posted all across the country. When I see one written correctly I vow to shop at that store.

    As for commas, has anyone read The Dog Fighter by Mark Bojanowski? He solved the problem but writing an entire book with no punctuation other than periods. It worked too. It was a great exercise in how little “rules” really matter. I think the comma especially is there for pace as much as anything. Yes, certain rules do apply and should be used but I also think the comma is great tool when you want to control the reader’s pace as they read a line.

  4. Thanks for your comments, everyone!

    Sheila, you make a great point. We really would miss out on a lot of laughs if everything was printed correctly. Just think of the Jay Leno “Headlines”! :)

    Lucy, rules are definitely “slippery”, which is what makes things so frustrating sometimes, especially in a full-length work!

    Eric, I haven’t read that book, but it sounds like a fun read. I’ll have to pick it up! :)

  5. christinehusom

    Yes, less when they mean fewer is one of my pet peeves. Commas are a nuisance, aren’t they? I can read what I wrote, insert commas where they fit, then reread it and think they don’t belong there at all!

  6. GrammarFail

    I love typos (it means I am not the only one with grammar issues).

    I know I am bad at this stuff, but I don’t think there needs to before ‘though’ in:

    “Don’t get me wrong, though!” (from the second paragraph)

    … or am I really mixed up? haha

  7. GrammarFail, I love your name! LOL! Thanks for stopping by.

    My copyeditor would tell me I do need a comma in that instance. There’s more than one school of thought, though :)

  8. Rick

    “Tomato’s for sale”

    Signs like the above annoy me. Like the “less” and “fewer” issue, and “itsos”, these are distinctions that seem to me to serve a genuine purpose, and it’s a pity that people seem to almost willfully ignore them. And have you noticed how George R.R. Martin insists on using semi-colons when colons would work better? Sure, there are schools of thought, but I don’t think ignorance counts as one of those. The worst thing is academics who don’t know how to write, and peer reviewers and editors who let poorly written papers through: academia depends on precision of thought and expression.

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