Just Breathe

I may have perpetuated urban(e) legend when I repeated the following to my students years ago, but, in the realm of gossip by poets about poets, punctuation gossip is rife with both the urbane and the legendary.  What I said then was something like this: ‘the later poetry of Charles Bukowski contains more breaks and commas than his early work.  As Bukowski aged, his breathing had become more labored.  Did the two correlate?’ I asked this of my students.  We debated.

Something similar might be said of some of Larry Levis’ poems.  Those at the very end.  Then again, it might not.  It’s hard for me to break his poems down into their component punctuation, because I can see him reciting them in my mind’s eye.  I can see him telling ridiculous stories and chain smoking as we drove through a blizzard, teacher and awed student, in the mid ’90s, just six months before he died.

The thing is, when we pause for a breath, we often insert a comma or a line break.  A comma gives us pacing, as well as clarity.  When we are prone to pause for more breaths, perhaps we might be prone to more line breaks.  I’ll wager that’s going to be true for me, at least, if I lose my breath before my ability to write (and, forgive me for saying, but I do hope that goes last).  Writing looks to us for its pace, and in many poems, you can almost hear a walking, running, or riding pace, and, as we’ve become more sedentary (even as we move from place to place), a breathing pace.

But I’m not writing this to talk you out of lighting that cigarette, or to talk you into dropping all punctuation.  I’m writing this because a dropped comma has given me pause to think about pauses.

Yesterday, the news hit hard that Oxford University seems to have dropped a comma. (Update – perhaps only part of Oxford has made this shift, so far.) Whether for budgetary reasons, or something more nefarious, we do not yet know.  The comma dropped? The serial, or Oxford (sigh) comma.  This is the comma that lets you say, or sing, “Three french hens, two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree,” without turning blue.  Without it, “twoturtledovesandapartridgeinapeartree” gets very longwinded indeed.  This is the comma that defines the last in a series as The Last Thing, instead of as another thing duct taped on with an ‘and’.

You might get the impression I feel strongly.  I am not alone.

There are plenty of arguments against the Oxford serial comma.  It’s difficult to remember whether you want the last comma or not.  It’s expensive to pay proofreaders to make sure you’ve put them all in (note, I was a proofreader, and I thank you for the support.  I also strove to keep periods at the ends of sentences, and (not infrequently while I worked for a beltway firm outside of D.C.) the ‘l’ in ‘public’.  Proofreaders and librarians, folks.  We are good for you.).  It’s also yet another keystroke, and doesn’t anyone ever think of the poor typists?

Vampire weekend has its own particular (language warning for the faint of heart) take on the subject .

I’m sure there are others.  But the thing is, we are an auditory society, even if much of what we process by ear is what we read.  Case in point: You don’t often hear, “that doesn’t read right.”  You hear, “that doesn’t sound right.”  Well, to me, the world without the Oxford serial comma sounds a little more rushed, and a lot more jammed together.

I’d prefer to slow down, consider my options, and breathe.



  1. Fran,
    I wouldn’t dare proof your prose. I will say, however, that I am completely mad for the serial comma (although I wouldn’t give you two figs for an exclamation point) and refuse to give it up. Julie

  2. Life without the Oxford comma is unbearable to think about. What’s next? Allowing sentences to end in prepositions?!

  3. You know, I saw that you were a fan of the serial comma, and I figured we were kindred spirits. However, I avoid grammar terminology assiduously, so I wasn’t sure you meant what I thought you did.

    Now, I read your post.

    This is terrible! A travesty!! More exclamation points!!!

    Surely our media should be focusing on this, rather than the interminable tragedy of the debt, which only non-politicians care about anyway.

    One of my most vehement and vituperative professional arguments ever was about the serial comma. I won that one, but gave ground on some equally important point of style. Now, the other side is winning.

    But I fight on against “woman doctor” (gynecologist, in my book), “landing momentarily”, and others.

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