Culture Desk
In Defense of “Nutty” Commas
By Mary Norris
April 12, 2012
As the keeper of the comma shaker here at The New Yorker, I feel obliged to respond to the characterization of our house style regarding commas, in Ben Yagoda’s recent post for the New York Times blog (“Fanfare for the Comma Man”), as “nutty.”
Everyone knows that The New Yorker is famously fuddy-duddy for its use of “close” punctuation. The copy editor from whom I inherited the comma shaker was herself not a fan of our style on commas; hence her painstaking creation of this one-of-a-kind item—a cannister (we spell it with two “n”s) about the size of a giant can of grated cheese, wrapped in brown paper flecked with hand-drawn commas, and topped with a perforated blue lid. The joke, of course, is that we are overliberal in our use of commas and ought to be more judicious.
Nobody is really arguing about the serial comma. We like it because it prevents ambiguity. For instance, “I invited my boss, her nephew and my acupuncturist to the party.” Without the serial comma, one might mistake my boss’s nephew for my acupuncturist. This would be misleading, if only momentarily: Sam is a nice kid, but I would never let him near me with a needle. With the serial comma, there is no ambiguity: “I invited my boss, her nephew, and my acupuncturist to the party.” You could argue that only a perverse reader would mistake my boss’s nephew for my acupuncturist, but the point is that when you restrict the use of the serial comma solely to those instances where a genuine ambiguity exists, then every time you come to a series you have to stop and think. By adopting the serial comma, we have more energy to devote to sprinkling in commas elsewhere.
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Which brings me to those nutty commas, exemplified by Mr. Yagoda in a sentence about Lee Atwater from a piece by Jane Mayer in the double issue of Feb. 13 & 20, 2012: “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret …” Mr. Yagoda writes, “No other publication would put a comma after ‘died’ or ‘cancer.’ The New Yorker does so because otherwise (or so the thinking goes), the sentence would suggest that Atwater died multiple times and of multiple causes.”
“That is nutty, of course,” he adds. And he’s right. But I would argue that there is another reason to put those commas in that sentence. The point is that Atwater expressed regret before he died. What he died of and when he died of it are both details that the author provides only as an aside, to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. Cause and date of death are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. In fact, I might have been tempted to bury the obituary in parentheses, like a whisper: “Before Atwater died (of brain cancer, in 1991), he expressed regret …”
It would be too bad if we were to get so distracted by the punctuation that we failed to absorb the meaning of the words.
Next: the hyphen grinder.
Mary Norris began working at The New Yorker in 1978 and was a query proofreader at the magazine for twenty-four years. She is the author of “Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” and “Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen.”
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