Writing Right with Dmitri: Reclaiming Our Punctuation

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Reclaiming Our Punctuation

Editor at work.

Prolegomena, in the Form of Abuse of my Worst English Teacher

Most of my English teachers were lovely people. They entertained me hugely, even when they didn't intend to. Almost all of them radiated love for this language we speak, its vagaries, and the literature it spawned.

Almost of all of them. There was, after all, Mrs O'Shaughnessy.

Am, appear, become, continue,

Feel, grow, hear, look, seem, shine, smell,

These are all the linking verbs that you have taught us well…

On Senior Day, when it was customary for the soon-to-be-graduated students (that's what we call 'pupils') to mock their teachers in an assembly, some girls from the choir got up in their choir robes and sang this song to the tune of our school's alma mater song. Everybody knew who they were making fun of. Mrs O'Shaughnessy, who, as we well knew, had zero sense of humour, stalked out of the auditorium, her spike heels tapping angrily down the corridor. Even her fellow teachers had no sympathy for her: the woman was a pain where aspirin doesn't help.

Mrs O'Shaughnessy wore high heels every working day of her life, probably to compensate for a sense of height inferiority. She also piled her hair (flaming red, hairsprayed to within an inch of its life) on top of her head. Nonetheless, she was shorter than I am, and I'm 5 foot 3-and-a-half, if you're feeling generous. I don't know why she was worried about it. She was petite and freckled, and I would have found her lovely if she hadn't been so angry all the time. That anger spilled over into trying to ruin English instruction for us.

Nobody can ruin English for me. It's my native language, give or take a few dialectical variations. I resorted to guerilla warfare.

Once, angry that my voice was too soft, Mrs O'S demanded that I stand up to read. I did. Then stood there for the next 15 minutes until she couldn't stand it any more and told me to sit down.

Mrs O'S was scathingly rude to a girl about her oral presentation. Knowing how shy the speaker was, I led loud applause. The whole class joined in asking questions of Scott Schuster, whose 'visual aid' (required) consisted of an impromptu tap dance. Mrs O'S was livid with rage. The world seemed to be conspiring against her. Repeatedly.

Mrs O'S, like all teachers, hated marking the obligatory book reports. I sympathise: I've taught, and I've edited. 200 badly-misspelled and largely incoherent book reports will drive a person to drink. Mrs O'S had it worse, because she was a Control Freak. So she tried to remove spontaneity from the book reports – which, let's face it, is their only redeeming virtue as a writing exercise.

Mrs O'S created a questionnaire to be filled out. Title of book, Name of author. Publisher's information. Length of book. Type: we had to do one biography, one non-fiction, etc, every year. Then such questions as: summarize (she wouldn't let me spell it with an 's', we had a feud about that) the plot of the book in 10 sentences.

You had to 'summarize the plot' in 10 sentences. Even if it was a biography. Let that sink in.

Now, I had a luxury the other students didn't have: I read like mad. After all, I wasn't any good at sport, so I had more free time to do nerd stuff. I could always grab a book at random from the ones I'd read that month in order to write a book report.

On this particular occasion, I chose The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Which is a rather hefty volume.

I particularly enjoyed the exercise of reducing the Third Reich to ten sentences. I made extensive use of the semicolon. (That's what they're for, in case you were wondering.) I turned it in.

I got an A, of course, but that was the maddest woman I've ever seen. I really felt sorry for her, but you know what?

Spoiling someone's enjoyment of their own language is a crime suitably punished by being pranked by infant editors.

And now: my totally jocular comma rant, which is intended to amuse and serve as a reference – but never, ever, to spoil the fun of writing for anybody.

The Post Editor's Annual Comma Rant

This is your annual reminder that our punctuation still needs work. Why do we need this? Believe it or not, if you don't punctuate the right way, readers get all confused. It makes them feel dumb. And then they'll go away and stop reading, and do something that makes them feel better, like eating ice cream. We don't have stock in Ben & Jerry's, but we are invested in getting people to read our Stuff. So help us out, here. Yeah, it's true people don't punctuate or spell very well on social media. It's also true that other people yell at them. Do you remember what 'covfefe' means?

Commas are not rocket science, and if I can do it, you can. It is true that Your Editor used to take the whole typewriter to the shop every time a new ribbon was called for. But threading a typewriter ribbon is a matter of spatial visualization.

We're getting better at it, troops. Here are the ones you still do wrong. Repeatedly.

  • Punctuating direct address. For some reason, you people love dialogue. And, since most of you are English, your characters constantly address one another, either as 'sir' or 'milady', or as 'luv', 'darlin', or other suitable endearments. I miss LaRue: he'd be capable of 'mister honey', along with many, many swearwords I had to take out.

    Here's how you punctuate a direct address. You need commas. They are not optional. If you do not put them in, I have to, and I'm lazy.
    Hello, bro, what are you doing?
    Hi, Dmitri, I'm getting that 'cute little chipmunk' out of your window, where it's stuck, in the dark. Oh, joy. (Farmer Hoggett)
  • NEVER end a sentence with a comma. USE A FULL STOP. I think that's sufficiently clear. If you have questions, see me after class.
  • Punctuating interjections. Interjections aren't always swear words, unless you're Henry Letterbox. Interjections could be things like 'hey' or 'wow'.
    Hey, Joe, come over here a minute. I need your help with…wow, that's a really big spider. Like, at least fifty pounds.
  • Punctuate INSIDE the quotation marks. A sentence inside a set of quotation marks that has no punctuation is in violation of statute and will be ticketed. You people are still doing this wrong, and I get the nervous willies moving all those teensy-tiny marks around. So stop it.
    'I am tired of doing this,' he said. 'Tireder than you will ever know. I am so tired my teeth ache.'
  • Notice how, in the example above, the statement DOES end with a comma. Yes. That's right. It ends with a comma because IT IS INSIDE THE BLINKIN' QUOTATION MARKS! As Henry Letterbox would tell you. Only more colourfully.
  • These are the rules. I didn't make them up.
  • An adjective that has two parts gets a hyphen, you lazy Brits! Full-body armour. Well-deserved rest. Older-than-dirt, grumpy-as-heck Editor.

Now, to the 64,000-euro question (note the hyphen!): why does it matter?

What would you think if you saw this sign?






How about:

NO, popsicles!

(This is where the commas go to hide, is it?)

Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.

Okay, class dismissed. Your homework is to go and apply these lessons to the next piece of Stuff you send in. I'll stop fussin' about commas, and stick to yelling at politicians.

In the comments: Feel free to ask me questions about comma usage in writing. Also feel free to complain loudly about your English teachers. Maybe some English teachers will read this and be converted.

PS Last night, I happened to look up Fannie Flagg, who is a wonderfully talented woman from Alabama. She was on the original 'Candid Camera' as well as in movies and on game shows. She always wanted to be a writer, but for some reason, she couldn't spell to save her life. (This was before spellcheck.) So she couldn't get a publisher to look at her stuff. On the 'Match Game' show, she always spelled her cards wrong, which was played for humour.

A viewer, who happened to be a specialist in learning disabilities, noticed and wrote Ms Flagg. Did she know about dyslexia? She did not. Help was available...

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe spent 36 weeks on the NY Times bestseller list. It was also made into a movie.

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