Friday, May 11, 2012

Guest Blog: "Comma Wars" by Wayne Scheer

It's a problem every writer faces each day. No, not how am I going to express my thoughts elegantly and concisely or even how am I going to earn enough money to make it through next month?

Rather, where should I place the damned comma?

There are rules, of course.  But in order to understand the rules, you must have a command of such phrases as, "coordinate adjectives," "restrictive elements," "parenthetical expressions," as well as the ever-popular, "independent and dependent clauses."  Trying to understand the logic behind comma rules is like trying to balance Jello on the tip of a banana. Even if you succeed, you still ask yourself: "Why did I bother?"
So we can all appreciate the kommakrigen, comma war, taking place in Denmark. That's right. The Cold War may be dead, but the dreaded commas continue to creep and crawl over the writings of Danes, great and otherwise, dancing doggedly from phrase to phrase.

You see, up until the Second World War, Danish was dependent on rules of German punctuation. That meant commas were used aggressively in rigid, lockstep formation. The problem is after the war, everything German became so uncool that Danish schools stopped teaching the rules, and most folk, if they once accepted the German punctuation mentality, soon denied any knowledge of it.
But the comma remained, and few knew when to use it.
However, the present-day Conservatives want to bring back the old German way of punctuating by stressing the basics of grammar in the Danish school system while the left-wing Social Democrats, under the authority of the 1996 Language Committee of the Ministry of Culture, are rallying behind the "New Comma," with its de-emphasis on rules. Instead, it argues that the comma should be used primarily to denote natural pauses of breath in Danish speech.

Sound familiar?

The problem, of course, is few Danes understand the old German rules well enough to use the comma with any kind of consistency and just as few Danes speak in regular breath patterns, especially when dealing with matters of punctuation and politics. The left-wing accuses the Conservatives of fostering an elitism based on a foreign ideology and the right-wing accuses the Social Democrats of a kind of dummying down to appease the masses. For the grammarians, nothing less than the future of Danish civilization is at stake.

Is there a lesson in this for us?  Perhaps. But for me I'd rather let the Danes fight it out while I try to determine if I need a comma or if I can get away without using one even if this final sentence leaves me breathless.
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Wayne Scheer has locked himself in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement. (Wayne's, not the turtle's.) To keep from going back to work, he's published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories. He's been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife and can be contacted at
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The book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss has nothing to do with Wayne's guest blog. I just thought it was a nice addition for those comma-challenged people as a resource.

1 comment:

Francene Stanley said...

Oh dear. I don't know any of those clever rules I should understand before placing my comma. Do I still count as a writer? A great man once said, "Writers write." He didn't mention commas.