Sunday, January 29, 2012

Comma Comment

Last night I was flipping through my son’s English book as we discussed his needing to select from it a poem for a class project. The book contained many of my favorites, including The Lamb, The Second Coming, Ozymandius (which I memorized when I was even younger than my son is now, for a class project), and several by good old Robert Frost, including this:

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost
New Hampshire, 1923

Recalling a discussion of the poem in an English class back in college, I shared with my son the subtextual meaning of “the woods,” and privately reflected, not for the first time, on the first line of the last stanza:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

Not long ago I fell into a Facebook “conversation” about the serial comma, aka the Oxford comma. I have always used it, finding it more logical and clear than the newspaper style, which omits the comma before “and” or “or”: Snap, Crackle, and Pop clearly refers to three entities; Snap, Crackle and Pop could refer to three, or to two (Snap + [Crackle and Pop]), depending on context.

With the serial-comma conversation fairly fresh in mind, I recalled my English professor’s comment on the punctuation of that line:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
says something quite different from The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.

Frost isn’t saying the woods are lovely and dark and deep; he is saying they are lovely (because they are) dark and deep. Dark and deep is a single expression, as is lovely.

But if you don’t habitually employ the serial comma you may well lose that distinction, for its absence in the poem would go unnoticed. Lovely, dark and deep would be like Snap, Crackle and Pop—maybe two ideas, maybe three, and probably unnoticed.

Even by its absence, the serial comma does important work.

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