Comma wars: why the New Yorker is, plainly, wrong

20 Feb
The famous logo of the New Yorker, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary

The famous logo of the New Yorker, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary

A couple of friends suggested this morning that I read an article from the February 23 issue of the New Yorker entitled  “Holy Writ”, more catchily retitled for the internet as “Confessions of a Comma Queen”. They suggested it because I am a sub-editor and editor of 30 years’ standing. But they may not know that I am also a life-long fan of the New Yorker.

I grew up, in Canada, with the New Yorker landing on the front porch 47 times a year. At first I read it only for the cartoons, by Addams, and Steinberg, and Thurber. One of our two cats was named after a Thurber cartoon in which one of his hefty, domineering women berates a guilty hippopotamus, with a hat, shoe, and pipe lying near him on the ground, under the caption, “What have you done with Dr. Millmoss?”

On this cat’s first day in our home, he was chased under a chest of drawers by the proprietorial pre-resident cat. My father, entering the room to find just the one, triumphant cat visible, repeated that caption to him accusingly. The scaredy-cat was dubbed Dr. Millmoss thereafter.

It was not until my teens that I discovered the New Yorker’s writers, particularly Pauline Kael, who first introduced me to the alluring notion that there was such a profession as film critic; and that, if so, I coveted it. She was a wonderful writer, even if I did not always agree with her judgments. I recall that she demolished The Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film I had loved at the time beyond measure, and took four pages in doing so. Having recently studied Hamlet for A-Level, I wondered to myself: “Doth the lady protest too much?”

I was gratified that the writer of this New Yorker piece on syntax, Mary Norris, who has worked for most of her life as a copy-editor for this most scrupulous of publications, commends the late critic for her punctiliousness. Norris’s piece was fascinating, and beautifully written; once again, however, I could not agree with it.

Norris submits that there are two camps in copy-editing: “Basically, there are two schools of thought: One plays by ear, using the comma to mark a pause, like dynamics in music; if you were reading aloud, the comma would suggest when to take a breath. The other uses punctuation to clarify the meaning of a sentence by illuminating its underlying structure.”

She, and the New Yorker, subscribe to the second school. This, to me, is insanity.

Punctuation is the percussion of a sentence. Think of a drum kit, with its bass pedals and snares and high hats and toms: these are your commas, colons, semi-colons and rules. You can pay off a joke by using a rule, rather than comma, like the “boom-tish!” of a cymbal: “The copy-editor thought the proctologist fancied her – but he only wanted her for her colon.” Boom-tish!

Through it all the commas provide the rhythm, the underlying beat, and removing them – so long as the sense is not impaired – is an artistic and not a pedantic decision. Take this famous sentence by Jack Kerouac: “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” If you add a comma after “stars”, or “pop”, you destroy the crescendo.

Or consider this magnificent deployment of the full arsenal of commas, hyphens, colons and full stops: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” I can imagine Nabokov writing and rewriting these sentences, searching for the perfect rhythm. Remove the sub-clause “at three” and it no longer works.

Conversely, examine this clunky New Yorker sentence, quoted in the article, which Mary Norris defends: “When I was in high school, at Horace Mann, in the Bronx, in the nineteen-seventies, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers.” It’s hideous. By the time you have waded through the thicket of sub-clauses to reach the clearing of the sentence – the eccentric teachers – you have lost all interest. I would remove at least one comma: “When I was in high school, at Horace Mann in the Bronx, in the nineteen-seventies, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers.” More likely I would reorder the sentence, thus: “When I was in high school in the nineteen-seventies, at Horace Mann in the Bronx, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers.”

It is axiomatic to me that the best writing is that which can be read out loud with the greatest pleasure for both speaker and listener. This hits home particularly when you have children, to whom you read stories. It was a joy to discover that The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (note that CS Lewis eschews in his title the fussy serial or “Oxford” comma upon which the New Yorker insists), which I had adored as a child, was, as an adult, the most mellifluous of all books to read aloud.

A copy-editor’s job is to ensure that a piece of prose is accurate, comprehensible, and follows house style in order to avoid jarring inconsistencies between different authors. But to do so at the expense of rhythm, rather than to support it, seems to me plainly wrong-headed.

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One Response to “Comma wars: why the New Yorker is, plainly, wrong”

  1. Veronica Haidar February 22, 2015 at 12:46 pm #

    I totally agree that punctuation and syntax should serve the meaning, rhythm and readability of the text, not vice-versa. To my mind, good style should be unobtrusive. As soon as you start noticing the punctuation, or something’s hard to read, as a reader, you’re taken out of the story and to me that’s a failing on the part of the writer.

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