Winter term 1992. I waited with bated breath for feedback on my first creative writing essay. Kathy Rush, my instructor, had lovely things to say about my voice and plotting. But it was her perspective on punctuation that would haunt me and send me on a quest: “You need to become intimately acquainted with the comma.”
At first appearance, the comma seems straightforward. Nothing more than a simple punctuator, a connector, helping to weave thoughts together or remind us to pause. However, upon closer inspection, the comma is perhaps the most ambiguous tool in modern English.
In a nutshell, you can’t escape the conundrum of the comma: When do you use it? When don’t you? Is there anyone among us who can say for sure?
My attempts to master the little beast began long before college. It started in my early years when my father, Arnie Dyer (a ’69 alumnus and English teacher) would whip out his red pen and bloody every essay I crafted. In hindsight, I realize that his exacting pen helped thicken my skin and strengthen my writing. Not that I appreciated it at the time.
I distinctly remember my breaking point. I was in high school and had spent countless hours reworking an essay, only to have it returned looking like it was in desperate need of a tourniquet. The bottom of the page included a primer on the proper use of the comma: the introductory, the interrupter, a basic conjunction, and the granddaddy of them all—the Oxford comma.
The Oxford is an optional and stylistic comma used to clarify meaning when stringing items together in a list. My father touted this perfect piece of punctuation, claiming it performed like a superhero, warding off misunderstandings. He was probably right. Case in point? Last year Maine dairy workers won a labor dispute over a list of required duties due to vagueness of contractual language—thanks to a missing Oxford comma. Grammaticists take the serial comma seriously. Entire tomes, such as the bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, have been devoted to the Oxford and its appropriate use.
Today, in my career as a professional writer, I’ve learned to appreciate the gifts gleaned from my father’s and professor’s insights and red pen, like the fact that I never flinch when editors suggest changes to a manuscript. Or that I delight in feedback from everyone who touches my work. Yet, my understanding of the comma remains fluid.
There’s no escaping the great comma debate. One of my editors loves the Oxford. Another loathes it. Copy editors have differing and unwavering beliefs how best to use the comma. When my first manuscript went through copy edits, every introductory comma was removed. I made note and intentionally didn’t use a single introductory comma in the next manuscript. But stop the presses! Don’t make assumptions or get unattached to the pesky punctuator, because the next copy editor added every introductory comma back in.
What I’ve learned 18 books later is that, while other punctuation has a distinct and undebatable purpose, the comma remains ambiguous. A period signals a stop. A question mark demands an answer. An exclamation point should be used sparingly and never in threes. A colon is a dying breed, most commonly recognized as a smiley-face emoji.
The comma is an enigma. Loved and loathed. Bound by personal taste rather than rigid rule books.
In a social media–saturated world where everybody is screaming the loudest that they’re right and you’re wrong, the comma lives in gray areas of uncertainty. It asks us to take a breath, reflect, and listen. It reminds us to consider words and meaning. For a small piece of punctuation, that’s a profound gift.
—By Kate Dyer-Seeley
Kate Dyer-Seeley, BA ’99 (communication disorders and sciences), is a Pacific Northwest native and writer of murder mysteries under the pseudonym Ellie Alexander.