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National Punctuation Day, Sept. 24, never stood a chance of making headlines amid Trump tweets, Russian hacks, and cat-5-force hurricanes. A catastrophe beats a comma for reader appeal every time.
Yet at the RoundTable, a clutch of writers, proofreaders, and editors engage every day with dots, squiggles, and dashes. Recognizable by their squinty eyes and furrowed brows, they labor in the belief that these elusive marks are vital to clarity in “covering what matters” in Evanston.
Like knights of old, the punctuation geeks begin by choosing weapons and colors. Pilot fine-tipped pens come boxed in only four colors and black; first-comers get first dibs. The red, green, blue, or purple ink of an individual’s pen helps the graphics department track unclear edits to their source.
Proofreaders tangle early and often with commas. A humorous bestselling book on punctuation (really?) called “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” reinforces the punctuation mavens’ trust in the power of the comma to make a difference. The title of this British cult classic refers to a gun-toting panda that orders a sandwich, eats it, and then fires two shots in the air. The panda tosses his surprised waiter a poorly punctuated wildlife manual that purports to describe the vegetarian eating habits of the panda. But with its comma, the manual instead describes the violent behavior of a black-and-white mammal that “eats, shoots & leaves.”
“The Associated Press Stylebook” is the foremost, but not the only, punctuation bible at the RoundTable. Following its logic requires not only patience but also a tolerance (think affection) for grammatical nitty-gritty. For example, a restrictive clause by any name (AP calls it an “essential” clause) is one that cannot be eliminated from a sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence. It is never set off by commas and is introduced by “that”: This is the comma that made the difference.
But if the essential clause refers to a human being or an animal with a name, “who” or “whom” is preferred: The name of the panda who fired the shots is Ping. Only when the sentence contains another clause beginning with “that” is “which” the right introductory word.
Even old pros get confused, New Yorker copy editor and self-confessed “Comma Queen” Mary Norris admits in her book “Between You & Me” that her first thought is that a comma would seem by nature to “restrict” meaning. But a comma’s first job is to separate, she says, so a restrictive (think “essential”) clause wants to cling to, not separate from, the word it modifies.
Suffice it to say that the “nonessential” or “nonrestrictive” clause is the opposite – set off by commas and beginning with “which.” This is the stuff curmudgeons are made on.
Punctuation rules sometimes leave room for interpretation – and for disagreement. There have been days at the RoundTablewhen one proofreader puts in a comma and the next one deletes it. Nothing drives the design department crazier.
The main bugaboo of punctuation pundits, though, has to be the apostrophe. Jeff Rubin, the founder of Punctuation Day, conducted a contest calling for photos of signs with abhorrent apostrophe errors. Apostrophes so often elbow their way into possessive pronouns (you’re coat, it’s mittens) and unwitting plurals (two dollar’s a dozen) that the public sometimes gives up on them entirely (Pings Café). Some predict that the extra effort of texting an apostrophe may lead to its extinction anyway.
RoundTable wordworkers must be flexible as well as obedient. They deal with an updated edition of “The AP Stylebook,” replete with revisions, every year. And the RoundTable itself has been known to establish a rule, overturn it, rethink the change, and go back to the original.
The controversial serial or Oxford comma is a good example. In the early days at the RoundTable, the emphasis was on simplifying. Ignoring years of training in English classes, the staff abandoned the serial comma and adopted the cleaner style of most other contemporary newspapers. There would be, they decreed, no “unnecessary” comma between the next-to-last item in a list and the “and” that precedes the final item (eats, shoots and leaves).
It worked, except there seemed to be too many exceptions and too many judgment calls. A punctuation summit was held, and in the interest of consistency, the serial comma made a comeback.
The RoundTable maintains its own idiosyncratic punctuation handbook, the accumulated wisdom of 19½ years in the business. It exists partly on paper (either in booklet form or taped to the office walls for emphasis) and partly in the collective memory. Along with conserving a number of rules of forgotten origin, the document reflects the prejudices and peculiarities of those who have toiled over copy for accuracy and the love of language.
Punctuation Day is their kind of holiday.