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“necessary” is not the point.

March 1, 2010

Thurber was once asked by a correspondent: “Why did you have a comma in the sentence, ‘After dinner, the men went into the living-room’?” And his answer was probably one of the loveliest things ever said about punctuation. “This particular comma,” Thurber explained, “was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.”

– Lynn Truss

A few days ago, Gawker posted on an inconceivably poorly written editor’s Defense of Editors, whose myriad grammatical mutations had the charming effect of simultaneously making a case for the importance of the job’s continued existence and for the importance of having someone else do it. The comment forum almost immediately became a grammar workshop (interweb grammar chatz ftw!). In it, I found this:

And since this has become a kind of grammar forum, I’ve a question for anyone who knows the answer and cares to respond. In the following sentence, from Tad Friend’s terrific new memoir, “Cheerful Money” — no, I’m not connected to Tad in any way; just reading him now — I can’t understand why there is a comma after “AND” and before “WHILE” in the following sentence: “In appreciation, he invited her to take a memento from his shop, and, while she was furious at Connie, she finally picked out this elephant.” I’m confused, because according to Strunk & White, “If a dependent clause, or an introductory phrase requiring to be set off by a comma, precedes the second independent clause, no comma is needed after the conjunction.” If that’s the rule, shouldn’t there just be a comma after “SHOP” without a second one before “WHILE”?

WHEW. Okay. The sentence in question is this:

“In appreciation, he invited her to take a memento from his shop, and, while she was furious at Connie, she finally picked out this elephant.”

The question (in question) is whether the comma between “and” and “while” ought to be there. This inquiry inspired a full fourteen responses, dealing with dependent vs. independent clauses, and which were at work. That’s all well and good (and pedantically masturbatory), but it ignores a grander point: it’s pretty.

I love punctuation. This might well be because I received only the most halfhearted lessons in it growing up, and so have the happy habit of skimming right past existential issues of phrases and clauses straight to a sentence’s voice, to its rhythm and beat. That comma following “and” isn’t just there in accordance with, or defiance of, some 17th-century grammarian’s whim, it’s there to tell you how to hear “and/while”–as “and…while” rather than “ANDWHILE”. (See? How would that have made any sense without some creative puncuating? Although perhaps it still doesn’t?)

Punctuation isn’t an angry librarian tapping her “QUIET” sign, it’s a slightly crazed conductor sharpening the drum beats and drawing out the violins. You’d do well to feel some slight trepidation, but if your feet aren’t tapping, you’re missing all the fun.

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