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Punctuation marks are to writing what meaningful pauses are to conversation. The comma drama was a yawn that became a sneezing epidemic. In the last couple of days you have been assaulted by the Oxford comma from everywhere. Op-eds in respected journals have quoted from social networking sites where, forget commas, even words are half-chewed to ‘brng on da mt horses’, so to speak.
Therefore, the dirge seems ironic. They have dusted grammar books and are telling us in Moses-like tones that the Oxford comma is a serial comma. My imagination has been running wild ever since as I see a woman (comma does not sound manly enough) wearing an eye-mask, ice pick in hand, going on a murderous spree over lines, slicing them mid-sentence, and killing all ambitions of linguistic rebellion.
The controversy started when some Oxford group announced that there was no need for that comma; it was not meant for the whole world but its muddled academic huddle. People who had no knowledge of that pit-stop between words got agitated. How can you take it away, they asked. In the interest of facts, let me also cite what happens if you desist from the usage of this mark. Should you choose to write, “I ate burgers, fries, and brownies” then you are the Oxford kind. If you write, “I ate burgers, fries and brownies” you are wrong. No, not for eating them, but because you were supposed to add a comely comma before ‘and’. Don’t ask me why. Okay, let me guess: is it to demarcate that the fries are not part of the brownies and the brownies are not mixed in the fries and you have paid for three items and not two?
I love the English language; I love language gliding over tongue and sliding on paper and blinking on monitors. But, I am more than likely to say, “I ate burgers, fries, brownies…” The ‘and’ is an add-on anyway, so a comma with an add-on is just extra cheese.
I do respect technique but not at the expense of a natural flow of words. If there are times I might not be able to communicate adequately, it would be due to the ideas and how they are argued. As I said at the very beginning, punctuation marks are pauses, and pregnant ones at that. Most times, I am in a hurry, my thoughts are rushing past and it would be completely unfair to stop them and give them a dressing down: “Hey, how could you forget to put in that comma there?”
Much of my writing is done without any punctuation marks or as they appear naturally while typing. If after a longish stint with the writing world this does not happen as a matter of course, it might be cause for serious concern. Does it mean there are no bad sentences? Of course there are. I start some with ‘But’, which is not considered quite the right thing to do; others with ‘Because’. I know that there are others words that could easily replace them, but the ‘buts’ and the ‘becauses’ sound right to me; they are sometimes there with a purpose. A style evolves and if writing is as hormonal as it is for me, then I’d be damned to play killjoy and correct fragments. They are meant to be fragments.
My handmaidens are the semi-colon and ellipses. They work best with my writing. And (yes, I also begin sentences with ‘and’) I do hyphenate some terms even though I am told they are considered old-fashioned now.
More importantly, I rarely use the exclamation mark in prose pieces; it is like canned laughter. If some people do not smile back at my smiling words, then they have missed the joke. I haven’t.