Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Comma Comments

Marissa Skudlarek responds unpunctually to Anthony’s words about her punctuation.

After I read the post where Anthony complimented me by saying “she’s insightful, thoughtful and has great grammar,” I told him that it had made me laugh out loud.

“Is it because my compliment of your grammar lacked an Oxford comma?” Anthony responded.

No, I told him, it was more that I found it amusing that the structure of his sentence implied that my grammar is the best thing about my writing. Whereas I feel like I’m much less obsessed with grammar than everyone assumes I am; honestly, I take the Vampire Weekend approach to the Oxford comma.

In the great prescriptivist-versus-descriptivist wars of usage and grammar, I feel like my fellow playwrights and I are combatants on the descriptivist side. We write dialogue that reflects how people actually talk, not the “proper” way to talk. We write sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and other infelicities galore. We punctuate intuitively and creatively. If we want an actor to speak flatly, we may end a question with a period instead of a question mark. If we want to convey that a line should be spoken swiftly, all in one breath, we may leave out the commas that custom would say we should leave in. We recognize that punctuation marks and the English language itself are tools to be wielded as we see fit—not according to a possibly antiquated and stuffy set of rules.

So, no, I’m not one of those people who gets worked up when I read a sentence that doesn’t use the Oxford comma. Yes, I’ve seen those memes that show how lack of an Oxford comma can lead to hilariously misleading sentences (“I admire my parents, Angelina Jolie and Pope Francis”) but I also recognize that most sentences aren’t like that. I do tend to use the Oxford comma in my own writing, but if someone else writes “eggs, milk and bread,” or “insightful, thoughtful and has great grammar,” I hardly notice the lack of the second comma there.

Therefore, I think of myself as a happy-go-lucky, carefree descriptivist, not a stuffy and hidebound prescriptivist. But is my self-perception really accurate? After all, I write posts about what it’s like to be a copy-editor and say that when I spot an error in The New Yorker, I fear the apocalypse is near.

Furthermore, I’m a descriptivist when it comes to how I punctuate the dialogue of my plays, but I am a strict prescriptivist when it comes to expecting actors to respect that punctuation. Lately, at every first table-read of one of my plays, I’ve started giving a little explanation about what I see as the difference between an em-dash and an ellipsis. (An em-dash is an abrupt cutting off; an ellipsis is a trailing off.) It helps avoid confusion later on, and also makes clear to the actors that yes, I do pay close attention to whether they notice the punctuation as well as the words.

Punctuation often represents an absence of sound: think of the different kinds of pauses implied by the period, the comma, the semicolon, the dash, the ellipsis. But in the absence of the playwright, the presence of the punctuation will help convey the meaning of her text.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. See the staged reading of her one-act Macaria, or The Good Life at the San Francisco Olympians Festival on Friday October 14! 

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