Commas, History, and William Strunk

When my oldest son was in second grade, he announced over dinner one night that he had learned how to use commas in school. Prodded to elaborate, he replied triumphantly, “Use a comma whenever you want a pause!”

And so began my long adversarial relationship with the school system.

We do not use commas whenever we want a pause. Commas do make readers pause, of course, but the question the writer should be asking is why: why should readers pause here? What is there at this point in the sentence that requires readers to see some difference, some separation, some special relationship between the clauses before and after the comma?

The function of commas (write this down, class) is to help readers see the relationship between any given word or clause and the rest of the words in the sentence.

I have more to say about commas than anyone should have to hear, but for now, here’s the interesting part about this commas-for-pauses business, at least for grammar geeks like me. Surfing online a few years ago, I discovered the online text of a late nineteenth-century grammar manual. You can’t imagine my excitement.

(No, really, you can’t. Ask my wife.)

Eager to see the author’s take on commas, I scrolled down to the discussion of punctuation, which went something like this:

Use a comma when you want a pause.

Use a semi-colon when you want a longer pause.

Use a colon when you want an even longer pause.

Okay, first, let’s all acknowledge that my son’s second-grade teacher came by her misinformation honestly. Sorry, Mrs. McGillicuddy.

But also, this passage showed me something I should have recognized long ago: that grammar is an historical discipline. Like any other body of knowledge — like biology or physics or medicine — we know more about it now than we did a hundred years ago. And we know more about punctuation; we have a clearer sense of how commas help writers write and help readers read.

Which brings me to William Strunk, the original author of our most famous guide to writing, The Elements of Style. An English professor at Cornell when he first had his book privately printed in 1918, Strunk wrote it to help his own students write well, but I suspect that he was not simply compiling the accepted conventions and grammatical wisdom of his time. (Indeed, some grammarians today think that Strunk’s knowledge of grammar was shaky at best and that his prescriptivist approach to writing is counter-productive. And I’m beginning to think that I agree.)

But I think Strunk was a scientist, conducting his own original research into the elements of writing — punctuation, sentence structure, diction — and hypothesizing how writers might best use those elements to write clear and precise English prose.

There’s none of this “use a comma whenever you want a pause” bologna in The Elements of Style. Strunk looked at a sentence the way a mathematician looks at an equation, expecting all the variables to have clear values and the symbols to perform precise functions. (The comparison isn’t entirely fanciful: before joining the Cornell English faculty, Strunk taught mathematics at a polytechnic institute.) Certainly, he looked at writing in the light of received conventions of his time, but he didn’t let those conventions restrain him from looking anew at the elements of style.

And neither should we. Just as we understand biology better after Darwin and physics better after Einstein, we understand writing better after Strunk. But maybe now we can see the elements of style differently than Strunk did a century ago. Here in the twenty-first century, we cannot help but see them from a different perspective.

The Elements of Style is a great book. When I was a freshman in college, fresh out of the Navy and determined to learn to write like a grown-up, someone recommended it, so I bought it and studied it and committed it to memory. And if now, almost a hundred years after it was first written, we can see its limitations and go beyond the lessons we learned there, it’s because William Strunk, like the greatest of teachers, has taught us so much and carried us this far.

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