The comma—is it the ultimate measure of human intellect? | Bleader

The comma—is it the ultimate measure of human intellect?


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Extremely important punctuation.
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  • Extremely important punctuation.
I spent a couple of hours at the kitchen table Wednesday morning rooting through Tuesday's papers. "Usually I circle anything I might want to get back to," I told my wife, "but apparently I didn't this time."

She said she wished she could help me, but Tuesday mornings she volunteers and barely has time to glance at the dailies. It didn't matter. "I'm not looking for a story," I said. "I'm looking for a comma that showed up somewhere it didn't belong." My wife doesn't have much of an eye for these. I do. And I like to think that anyone who reads me wants to know what really troubles us journalists.

To be honest, I wasn't completely sure what I was looking for—it might have been the lack of a comma where a comma was urgently needed. At any rate, it was comma-centric. Lapses in comma discipline are a creeping menace, and what they say about sloppy thinking and eroding standards is profound. But I guess on Tuesday I suffered a failure of nerve: I was afraid I couldn't make readers understand just how important the subject was and they'd think less of me for belaboring it.

Wednesday's Tribune made me think twice. Melissa Harris's Chicago Confidential column examines the wrong that is committed when typists leave two spaces (instead of one) between sentences. Harris eloquently argues the case for a single space and explains what keys Mac and PC users should hit to make sure a double space never happens.

"Please stop putting two spaces between sentences," she pleads. "It makes you look like a dinosaur."

It's a powerful column, and the Tribune gave it maximum exposure, placing it at the top of the front page of the business section. Yet it's based on nothing more than changing fashion. (Two spaces!? Yucch!) Comma usage is all about clarity, logic, structure, and intellectual rigor. Ultimately, what it addresses is the state of American education.

If I could find that wayward comma and present it to you, your blood would boil. But I cannot. When it was in my sights I let it sail by. I own this missed opportunity. Next time will be different.

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