A Brief Statement on the Comma

San Juan Islands FerryThe comma, which gives one pause; the comma which does not give one pause; the comma, at which point one pauses; the comma, a cockroach in the corner of the closet after all the clothes are cleaned out and the conversations are forgotten, hollow and cold; the comma that defies erasure, the comma that sticks; the comma that permits addition but sometimes subtracts; the comma a foot soldier, a drone wearily drove, the first key to fade; the comma a banana peal only a curmudgeonly grammarian with scruples would slip on; the comma a red light where turning right on the red without stopping is ok; the commas lined up like cars waiting for the ferry to return to cross over to the islands:

,,; ,, ,,; ,, ,,; ,, ,,; ,, ,,;   .     .       .         .           .            .            

Two Hep Cats and the Cool Comma

Punctuation Marks on Beach Trip Holiday

Scamble: I met a comma at the bus stop this morning. … Did you hear what I said? I said, I met a comma, at the bus stop, this morning.

Cramble: Be wary of commas. They’ll be on you like fleas.

-Did you know the apostrophe is the feminine form of comma?

-Band of punctuation pirates, the lot of them. Some witch of an exclamation point once hexed me into a pair of parentheses.

-Yes, life is hard enough without being labeled a parenthetical expression.

-Imagine impossible to break away from the vice grip of your parents.

-The bus stop comma seemed a cool enough little fellow.

-What was he up to?

-Just pausing, to say hello.

-I once dated an apostrophe, a beach volleyball aficionado, as I recall.

-Cool comma wasn’t going to the end of the line, Line 15, though, where the periods have apparently gentrified the neighborhood, the so-called Pearl District.

-No more comma splices. A few fragments, still.

-What’s the point of periods, anyway? We never really stop we get up and go again. He got off at the very next stop, the cool comma did.

-Why I prefer the express bus no all of that stop and go busyness biz.

Punctuation implies patience.

Punctuation Theory


“inexplicatable” = cat purr theory






Punctuator Robot




S circled in aquamarine


Archaeological dig

A Few Salient Notes on the Point of Punctuation

Nail Punches and HammersWhat is the point of punctuation? When can we be sure our marks are correctly selected and placed, knowing our readers will often think otherwise! Or worse, won’t care 😦 `

No. Shouldn’t punctuation be like a trip to a good dentist who pulls your tooth but you don’t feel a thing? Later, you feel for the point of that missing tooth with your proofreading tongue. Say goodbye to sunflower seeds, those single quote marks that helped along slow reads at the center of summer late inning baseball games. (Who is you, by the way? – but we should save that issue for a later post, because it has nothing to do with punctuation, but with person.)

The narrator of J. D. Salinger’s Seymour – An Introduction [when do we place titles in italics or “surround them with quote marks” and omit italics?], Buddy Glass, one of Seymour’s brothers, offers his reader a punctuation gift:

“…this unpretentious bouquet of early-blooming parentheses (((( )))).”

But he then suggests the “bouquet” more accurately portrays his “bowlegged…state of mind and body….” Buddy speaks to you as if the general reader is a good old buddy, one who does not pack a red-pen mentality correcting as he goes like a noisy street sweeper the debris of punctuation through streets littered with pot holes and broken gutters with missing horse rings.

Salinger’s narrator’s bouquet has always suggested to me an Army sergeant at rest, as indeed J. D. was.

Is placing letters or words in italics a form of punctuation?

What is ` used for?

What are {/} {/} but no worries this is not a test but a post on punctuation.

From Adverbial Beach (by Joe Linker):

Gently the blousy wordiness finally quiet down not but up again and continually.

Usually superlatively long only this hour lately awake before four too early darkly to call this morning while lately too late to hope for a verbly sleep.

The apostrophe is a comma that evolved from the sea and learned to fly away. Bring an apostrophe down to earth and you’ve got a nice crowbar.

The best punctuation works like the nailing in a tongue and groove hardwood floor; you don’t see the nails. For side edged, top nailed floors, keep a nail punch and hammer close at hand for countersinking punctuation marks that will otherwise trip up readers dancing and sliding by in socks.

Punctuation is such a trip, hipsters in the 60’s used to say, but members of that particular generation of hipsters, pockets full of commas, are beginning to reach their final ellipses.

A Lot Ado About Nothing

The Myth of Syllabus

I once spent a lot of time going to a lot of meetings where I took a lot of notes but also doodled a lot. Sometimes my neighbors showed an interest in my doodles, but not often. Over time I developed a disregard for the term a lot. A lot is used a lot as support for an argument, but a lot of the time a lot is too imprecise to properly fund a decision. Nevertheless, a lot of people got away with using the term a lot a lot.

Apart from its imprecision, a lot is unpalatable. A lot lifts off the tongue but cuts itself short, unlike alas, aloof, or aloft, which all seem more complete and satisfying. A lot carries no drift.

A lot of people think a lot is one word: alot. What’s a word? Speech flows, a syllable stream, often alotadoo about nothing. Punctuation helps, but punctuation is a kind of stop animation. A lot of the time, punctuation can only approximate the real speed of speech. Writing is divorced from speech. We are taught from a young age to separate our tongues from our eyes, the quicker to read. Poems often use stop animation technique to slow readers down, to get the reader to mouth the words, to taste the words, chew them. Words become salt water taffy in the poet’s mouth. A lot of poets suffer bad teeth, yet poetry is not fast food. A lot of poets are poor.

A lot tells an amount, but how much is it? Lots and lots. Compared to what? A lot of the time a lot is used with the time: a lot of the time. There seems to be some connection between a lot and time. A lot of the time the meaning of a lot is understood from context. It rains a lot in Portland, but still, there are a lot of different kinds of rain. A lot of the time, I think it’s raining, but it’s not wet outside. Those are good days to get a lot of yard work done.

What’s the opposite of a lot? Is there an antonym for alot? Alittle. In “Silence,” John Cage’s book that I come back to a lot, there’s a little story about a couple who live in Alaska. Someone asks them if it was very cold last winter. Not too cold, they respond, only a couple of days, they explain, did they have to stay in bed all day to keep warm.

Then again, a lot of the time, memories go awry, amiss, askew. While I read a lot in “Silence,” I had not recently read the little story about how cold the winter was, so I thought I’d better look it up. I glanced through “Silence” a few times, but I couldn’t find it. I then thought it might be in John Cage’s book “A Year From Monday,” and it is, on page 138, but there’s no mention of Alaska, and there’s no couple, just “a woman who lived in the country,” and there were more than a couple of days, “three or four days,” she says, but she does say “we had to stay in bed all day to keep warm,” so maybe that’s where I got the idea there was a couple. It’s a very short story: 44 words total.

Not a lot, but sometimes (maybe that’s the antonym) a lot is allot, as in allotment. I’ve reached the number of words allotted for this post. Not a lot.

Four Short Statements on the Sentence

3 Sailboats
  1. Entering the sentence, one feels caught in a trap, a cage, punctuation the catches and latches of entrance and exit that clamps down on our heads and tails, our arms or legs, fingers – when we let out an exclamation point, holding swelling finger up.
  2. Returning to the three persons (me, you, and the other: navigator, driver, and passenger), in a race to the finish, around pylons of periods.
  3. Periods around and around we go, how to begin and how to end, and where to dot the nose, punctuation choices a kind of Mr. Potato Head game.
  4. Returning to the sentence, the idea of the sentence as a measure of composition. “Where Are We Going? and What Are We Doing?” John Cage asked in “Silence.” And not sure of the answer, we feel the tension of certain sentences, we feel the intensity of the sentence, like a taut wire, fish on, pencil bent like a deep-sea fishing rod.

Cuff Links, Tie Clips, and Semicolons

Ian Frazier’s “Hungry Minds” concerns three themes: a writer’s workshop, the participants guests of a soup kitchen; the soup kitchen, the largest in the US, intertwined with the history of The Church of the Holy Apostles, in Chelsea, where the article takes place; and three types of hunger: physical, intellectual, and spiritual. The punctuation format for the previous sentence looks like this:

: , ; , , , , ; : , , .

Frazier’s article contains 36 semicolons. One of his paragraphs contains 8 semicolons; another, the one following the 8, contains 14 semicolons. Thus, there’s a fourth theme that might be said to emerge in Frazier’s essay: punctuation.

The two paragraphs containing the 22 semicolons are lists, essentially, and punctuated as items in a series, the semicolon used to separate items that contain commas. Without the semicolons, the items would run together, and reading would be more difficult, clarity lost. Of course, Frazier could have separated the items as sentences, using periods, but in context that solution would have proved monotonous, unnecessarily repeating full subjects and predicates. The remaining 14 semicolons are used for a variety of other purposes throughout Frazier’s essay.

It’s silly to say one does not like semicolons, or any other punctuation mark. It’s like saying one doesn’t like cuff links or tie clips. True, hardly anyone wears cuff links anymore, and business casual attire has rendered ties almost useless, and without a tie, there’s not much need for a tie clip. But if one still wears buttonless cuffs and floppy ties, then cuff links and tie clips are useful. If you don’t like them, fine, don’t wear them; but your not liking them hardly qualifies as a proof that there’s something wrong with their use. This is not to say that Frazier wears either; I don’t know. But his punctuation style invites comment, and “Hungry Minds,” in particular, proves an effective piece for the explication of punctuation and especially of the semicolon.

So, who doesn’t like semicolons? Kurt Vonnegut has been quoted yet again. It’s true that in “A Man Without a Country” (Seven Stories Press, 2005, p. 23), Vonnegut offers a first rule of creative writing: “Do not use semicolons,” followed by a creative description of where semicolons prove a writer to be from. It’s been quoted all over the place, like “Kilroy Was Here,” but what about Vonnegut’s paragraph following? “And I realize some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now on I will tell you when I’m kidding” (p. 23).

So, was he kidding about his advice against the use of semicolons? The half-quote cast adrift from its context seems to have originated with the GuardianDid Vonnegut abhor the semicolon? It seems unlikely, given the use of the semicolon in his own writing; indeed, it’s one curious aspect of the Vonnegut quote supposedly calling out semicolons as a kind of badge of the degreed that he did use semicolons. And if his attitude toward semicolons was, at worst, apathy, then why did he create this straw man position? He must have known he was feeding the pool of farm raised trout. A cursory glance at some Vonnegut books on my shelf spotted semicolons as follows:

“Player Piano,” para. 2;

“Mother Night,” penultimate para., Chapter 1;

“The Sirens of Titan,” para. 19, Chapter 1;

“Breakfast of Champions,” Chapter 1, 7th arrow in;

I didn’t reread all of these books pulled from my shelf, just glanced through the openings, and Vonnegut appears to use colons copiously and dashes – lots of dashes, too – in addition to the few semicolons sprouting like nettles.

Hi ho; so it goes.