For Want of a Comma – Or Was It a Semicolon?
Here’s Ben Yagoda, pushing his next book, How to Not Write Bad in a New York Times article, “The Most Comma Mistakes.” It’s all good with Ben; he wrote If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, a funny and useful book [however, I think the adjective is still alive].
The comma is, indeed, an oft-overused, and usually misplaced, form of punctuation, as any reader of The New Yorker will attest. It is commonly used as a pause, as if the writer had been holding his or her breath and was now resuming the narrative. In such cases, clearly a semicolon would be more appropriate. It rarely appears in speaking, but seems to be prevalent in careless writing or untalented editing.
Ruminating on the comma caused me to think about email and text messaging, especially now in these glorious days when we can dictate to Siri on our iPhones. Just try to get the punctuation correct, I dare you, unless you cry out “comma” or “question mark” or “period.” I still try to dictate these messages as if I were not on drugs.
And that got me to thinking about my building contractor, mentioned in last week’s blog. We had a lively exchange this past week via text messages about his hitting a deer with his car, yet every time I asked when he was coming back to finish up the last bits of work, there was no reply. [Hmmm, was there a comma in the sentence I could have eliminated?] In exasperation I drove to his home last night, thinking direct verbal communication might clarify the issue. He said he’d only gotten one text message from me. HA, exclamation point. What about those deer messages? And why did he not reply to the “one” message asking if [or, indeed when] he was coming back?
I think he could have written back a single-word, completely punctuation-less reply: No