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Danny Licht Headshot

Comma Sense, or How I Got into a Fight Over 2 Punctuation Marks

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Last week my two journalism class advisers gave us a comma test. It was quick -- only six sentences -- and the directions were simple: Add commas in the right places. I got working, and I plowed through the first five without any problem or hesitation.

But then, you guessed it, the sixth sentence came. It was a simple sentence, something to the effect of:

Marla and her dog Sally walked around the block.

Here's the rule for commas in this case: If Marla has one dog, place commas around 'Sally.' It's non-restrictive because she has only one dog. If she has multiple dogs, do not use commas, because the word 'Sally' adds value to the understanding of the text (i.e., it's adding restrictive information).

I raised my hand and asked the obvious question: Does Marla have more than one dog? My adviser looked at me, did her characteristic eye twitch and said, 'Sure.' I asked her to clarify: Is that yes or no? She said yes, and thus I omitted the commas.

It was a two-hour period, so they finished grading the tests before the period ended. I logged onto JupiterGrades and my grade wasn't too bad: 10 out of 12, a B. I went up to the advisers and asked to see my test, hoping to find a mistake they'd made.

I looked at the test, top down, and that's when I saw it: her bawdy red pen had etched erroneous commas around 'Sally.'

"Why is number six wrong?" I asked.

"Ha!" one adviser turned to the other. "I told you he was going to complain about number six!" (For reference, her shtick is to always 'be professional.')

"Yeah," I said. 'Because it's wrong. There aren't supposed to be commas there."

"It's only two points," she said, with a get-over-it face.

The points didn't bother me, I told her. It was grammar for the sake of grammar! Despite the sound and fury, I was masochistically ecstatic to be fighting in the name of beneficial English conventions.

These women are English teachers, but they aren't exactly paragons of grammatic excellence. They know their rules, but they know them like catechisms. They know what but not why.

And so I told them why (see above). She responded by handing me the AP Stylebook. They couldn't explain why, but the Stylebook (the opiate of the classes!) probably could. They didn't budge.

I then spent 20 minutes finding and printing examples from the New York Times and LA Times and explained to the advisers why each example was punctuated as it was. (For example, I explained that Peyton Manning has two brothers, Eli and Cooper, which is why Judy Battista, of the New York Times, wrote "his brother Eli" and not "his brother, Eli.")

But that wasn't enough.

"Write us an explanation of the rule, not using examples, and we'll give you the points."

I did, and I got the two points, but they still don't agree. I sacrificed my pride -- my grammatical pride -- for the sake of a partial-percentage grade increase. I'm something of a sellout, but at least I didn't submit to their power without a meaty brawl. After all, it was almost glorious. And in my school system, that's the best I can hope for.