Saturday, September 24, 2011

Ode to the Comma

t’s National Punctuation Day again. In the spirit of the celebration, here’s an excerpt from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. The character speaking is Renée, a 54-year-old widowed concierge who hides her intelligence (I modified the typography slightly for easier comprehension):

Madame Michel,
Would you be so kind as, to sign for the packages from the dry cleaner’s this afternoon?

I’ll pick them up at your loge this evening.
Scribbled signature

I was not prepared for such an underhanded attack. I collapse in shock on the nearest chair. I even begin to wonder if I am not going mad. Does this have the same effect on you, when this sort of thing happens?

Let me explain:

The cat is sleeping.

You’ve just read a harmless little sentence, and it has not caused you any pain or sudden fits of suffering, has it? Fair enough.

Now read again:

The cat, is sleeping.

Let me repeat it, so that there is no cause for ambiguity:

The cat comma is sleeping.

The cat, is sleeping.

Would you be so kind as, to sign for.

On the one hand we have an example of a prodigious use of the comma that takes great liberties with language, as said commas have been inserted quite unnecessarily, but to great effect:
I have been much blamed, both for war, and for peace …

And on the other hand, we have this dribbling scribbling on vellum, courtesy of Sabine Pallières, this comma slicing the sentence in half with all the trenchancy of a knife blade:

Would you be so kind as, to sign for the packages from the dry cleaner’s?

If Sabine Pallières had been a good Portuguese woman born under a fig tree in Faro, or a concierge who’d just arrived from the high-rise banlieues of Paris, or if she were the mentally challenged member of a tolerant family who had taken her in out of the goodness of their hearts, I might have whole-heartedly forgiven such guilty nonchalance. But Sabine Pallières is wealthy. Sabine Pallières is the wife of a bigwig in the arms industry. Sabine Pallières is the mother of a cretin in a conifer green duffle coat who, once he has his requisite diplomas and has obtained his Political Science degree, will in all likelihood go on to disseminate the mediocrity of his paltry ideas in a right-wing ministerial cabinet, and Sabine Pallières is, moreover, the daughter of a nasty woman in a fur coat who sits on the selection committee of a very prestigious publishing house and who is always so overloaded with jewels that there are days when I fear she will collapse from the sheer weight of them.

For all these reasons, Sabine Pallières has no excuse.

[Drop cap by Jessica Hische; art from Serial Comma Killer.]

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