Commas are a bit like farts: They usually stink and they can be quite funny.
If you are on excellent terms with the comma, I salute you. If you’re not, however, you are in good company. And if you have any doubt that commas stink, just ask the opinion of a third grader, or for that matter, of a college student struggling through the ordeal that is freshman English.
Should you wince at the mention of the comma, finding nothing funny about it at all, I direct you to the panda that is the subject of the famous “eats shoots and leaves” joke (and also to Lynne Truss’s grammar book by that title, comma added after the first word). And if that’s not enough to free your inner belly laugh, I refer you to some of my experiences as a proofreader with a major pharmaceutical company, some 35 years ago.
Now, you may argue that proofreading is about the deadliest dull occupation in existence. Like anything else in life, however, it is what you make of it.
One of my fellow proofreaders was seriously mismatched for the position (she had previously been a printing press operator for the company and, well, we had a labor union). English was not her first language, she was very poor at spelling and she had no interest whatever in grammar or punctuation. I am not proud to say that I joined the other proofreader in making some rather cruel jokes at this poor woman’s expense, particularly after one of her written instructions to the typesetters indicated a missing coma. You have to work for a drug company to truly appreciate that one.
After that incident, we proceeded to make horrible comma jokes at every opportunity. I’m talking about everything from “Can you comma over here for a minute?” to bad karaoke attempts at singing James Taylor’s “Handy Man” (click on the link and listen to the end of the song if you don’t get the reference). From there, we moved on to mangling other forms of punctuation in the name of medical proofreading humor (correcting an improperly punctuated sentence might involve a “semicolonoscopy”).
I thought about those long ago days while I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket this morning. I noticed a sign regarding the use of plastic bags. Let’s just say that this topic has become something of a big deal in our fair county since a local environmental ordinance, passed by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, requires supermarkets and box stores to charge ten cents per plastic bag. Many of my neighbors drive across the county line to Roseville to do our shopping, where no such ban is in place. But even the “avoiders” may be out of luck come November, when an initiative to extend the measure statewide will be on the ballot.
The sign in question read: “Say so long to single use plastic bags. Bring Your Own Sac.”
Whoa, Nellie! Sac? Seriously?
My Webster’s defines the word as “a pouch within a plant or animal, often containing a fluid.” I also checked one of the online dictionaries, which added the note “can be confused with sack.”
No kidding. Just when I was processing images of shoppers bringing cow stomachs and goat bladders to the supermarket, I realized that that the issue was not one of spelling, but one of punctuation. To understand this, it helps to be aware that, locally, “Sacramento” is often shortened to “Sac.” Apparently, the statement in question was intended as an instruction to county residents. “Bring your own, Sac,” has quite a different meaning than the same sentence without a comma.
It’s been a while since I’ve discussed grammar or punctuation in this space, so let me know if you’d like me to do so again (or conversely, feel free to lob rotten tomatoes at me). In other words, please leave me a comma.