Archive for November, 2006

How My Second Grade Teacher Ruined Any Hopes I Had of Mastering the Comma and Turned Me into a Hyperventilating Stalker

November 19th, 2006 11 comments

By Weston Ochse

What is it with the comma? I’ve never used it correctly. My proof readers always look at me incredulously and ask, ‘Why’d you use it here?”

I shrug. “I don’t know. Because it looked right?”

My earliest grammar memory has to do with the comma. It occurred in second grade in Denver, this I know because it was the winter I used to sneak out of the house and explore the Museum of Natural History every weekend. This was the winter after the summer I chased old men around Sioux Falls with dead garter snakes until they paid me a dime to leave them alone, which was after the spring I fell on a barbed wire fence and got fifty stitches in my wrist and met my new dad. In this school in Denver, I think it was Teller Elementary, the teacher was teaching us how to use the comma and the period. I remember concentrating really hard, then after the lesson trying my hand during the practical exercise and having the teacher look at me the same way my proof readers look at me.

“Why’d you use it here?”

“I thought you said to use a comma when you take a breath,” I mumbled.

I really thought that you used a comma when you breathed and I didn’t have a comma in the whole paragraph. Why? Because I was able to read the entire paragraph without breathing. Talk about lung power. I could have been a deep sea diver if it meant never having to use a comma. I’d live a life free of commas. I’d speak in long breathless sentences, then when I’d run out of breath, I’d speak no more.

But then she said something that was going to ruin me forever. “But you have to breathe. You can’t live without breathing, so if you want to live, breathe when you read.”

Turns out, she was just using the breathing as an example, and breathing didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the comma. Years later, I learned there were actual rules for comma usage, but then, in that cold Denver classroom, I broke down into tears and sobbed before the entire class as she kept me up at the board having me read a paragraph over and over, and me trying to breath in the right place, never getting the comma right, never breathing right, until I thought that I was even a bad breather. I was going to die and it was the comma’s fault. I swear the teacher is lucky I don’t have a condition.

So I got better. I became an author. I own Strunk and White and the Chicago Manual of Style, which I use frequently when I have questions about grammar, punctuation and word usage. And unless you’re talking about the serial comma, which I’ll discuss later, Strunk and White and the Chicago Grammar Mafia agree with each other, which helped me tremendously.

So with that in mind, I’m not going to write about all the things commas can do, how glorious they are, and what sad, little, crabby, laying-down-on-the-job single-assed-quotes they become when used incorrectly. Instead, I’m going to talk about the couple of occasions I just can’t seem to get it into my head when to use the comma correctly.

Quick review: Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

For instance:

  • The rat, fink bastard shot the cop, but forgot to run away.
  • The cop knee-capped the gang-banger, yet forgot to get a loaf of bread on the way home.
  • The junkie failed to score a rock, so banged her head repeatedly against the brick until unconsciousness gripped her in the cold icy hand of despair and….ah hell, you get the point.

Another review: Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause. Common starter words for introductory clauses that should be followed by a comma include after, although, as, because, if, since, when, while, then.

· While the zombie was chewing on the hand, the cat scratched at the door.

· Because her alarm clock was broken, she was killed by the meteor crashing through the roof.

· If your nose falls off, you ought to see a doctor.

· When the birds stop falling from the sky, we’ll shovel the driveway.

However, and this is where it gets me every time, don’t put a comma after the main clause when a dependent (subordinate) clause follows it (except for cases of extreme contrast).

1. She was late for class, because her alarm clock was broken. (incorrect)
2. The cat scratched at the door, while I was eating. (incorrect)1

I always make this mistake. I’ll shove a comma before every because, then, while, although, if, while and after regardless of where it appears in a sentence, because I remember that imbecile of a second grade teacher who told me to put a comma when I breathe and that if I don’t breathe I’ll die.

Say it with me and breathe where you see a comma…If your nose falls off, you ought to see a doctor. Try this now and breathe where you think there should be a comma…The cat scratched at the door while I was eating. Did you breathe between door and while or did you hold your breath like a deep see dive
r? In this case you shouldn’t have used a comma.

Let’s review.

So when a dependant subordinate clause is used at the beginning of a sentence (such as this one I just wrote), use a comma. But if the dependent subordinate clause follows the main clause then don’t use a comma. Is that right? Hell, then if one never began a sentence with a dependent subordinate clause, they’d never have to use a comma to separate clauses. And they’d die because they’d never breathe!

Now for the serial comma. Doesn’t that remind you of a serial killer? Maybe that’s what the comma really is. It’s a grammatical serial killer of any hope of understanding grammar.

Here’s the rule: The serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma or Harvard comma) is the comma used immediately before a grammatical conjunction (nearly always and or or) that precedes the last item in a list of three or more items. The phrase “ham, chips, and eggs” is an example that is written with the serial comma, while “ham, chips and eggs” is identical in meaning, but does not include the serial comma. 2

If my second grade teacher were here we’d be all fouled up.

…ham (breathe) chips and eggs…


…ham (breathe) chips (breathe) and eggs…

Repeat that last sentence ten times and you’ll come across as a stalker.

So what’s the big deal? I really shouldn’t have that much trouble with the serial comma, because if you look at it, there is no wrong answer. There are two schools of thought and both of them are correct. I think my problem is that if there are hard and fast rules for every other nit-pickin’ corpuscle of grammar, then the serial comma should conform as well and figure out what it’s going to do. How unfair is it for the serial comma to have it both ways and the period

to be stuck with its job? Or the question mark– how do you think it feels? It’s always asking, but never gets to know the answer. Only the period knows the answer, but it’s never allowed to question. The period has to accept everything without condition. I’m telling you, in the grammar universe, the serial comma is equal opportunity’s worst nightmare.

I really have to get it out of my head that a comma equals a breath. I think if I can somehow manage that, I’ll find a sort of peace. My irrational problem with the serial comma has more to do with my fear of not breathing than of being correct.

If, I, ever, see, that, teacher, again, I’m, gonna, whap, her, upside, the, head, with, a, comma!

Now who’s the hyperventilating stalker? I’d like to go back to that winter of 1972 and tell the little toe-headed boy sobbing in front of the blackboard that there are things in the world far more important than the comma. I’d like to scoop him into my arms and tell him that he can breathe any time he wants and not to worry about the psychotic grammarian who likes to scare little kids. I’d like to whisper to him that he won’t die for lack of a comma.

But I can’t go back. All I can do is tell everyone I know that the comma is a war torn bit of punctuation that is at once over-used and under-appreciated. Don’t be afraid of the comma. Look at the rules, try and use the comma well, and go in peace. Because like I want to say to that younger version of me, but will never be able to, you won’t die for lack of a comma unless someone is told– Kill him not save him –and they breathe in the wrong place.

1. Using Commas; Purdue Writing Lab;

2. The Serial Comma;;

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