Reader, Comma, I Married Him
A perfectly punctuated essay on a couple's commitment to good grammar
My husband Marc insists he needs more space, but he’s wrong. We’re not discussing the state of our union. We’re talking punctuation.
“It’s one space after a period, not two,” I insist.
“Because Microsoft says so.”
“Then why don’t you just write like James Joyce and not use any periods at all?” I say, exasperated.
“Because you’ll fix it for me.”
I’ve been taking a red pencil to his documents for 40 years, a habit I inherited from my mother, who lovingly policed my grammar and vocabulary. I learned the pesky two-space rule when she forced me to take typing in seventh grade, saying, “If your husband is ever out of work, you’ll have a skill to fall back on.”
She held such high aspirations for me. When she read my first published short story, she offered her customary incisive criticism: “I can’t believe you didn’t know how to spell mayonnaise.”
Silently Copyediting Everything I See
Growing up, I was every English teacher’s class pet, which didn’t make me popular with other students, but left me lots of time to read. I absorbed grammar, punctuation and spelling effortlessly, and teachers lavished praise on my writing.
But if I forgot to hit that space bar twice on my typewriter, they returned my papers festooned with humiliating red slashes marked “Punctuation error!”
I silently copyedit everything I see. Newspaper articles. Instruction manuals. Cereal boxes. My emails. Your emails. Typos mortify me.
Back then, letters produced on typewriters were all the same width. You needed an extra space so the writing wouldn’t look cramped. With the dawn of digital, fonts acquired variable sizes, making the two spaces rule obsolete.
But it wasn’t until I read an article warning, “Nothing says over 40 like two spaces after a period!” that I surrendered. I don’t want to be shamed by the millennials any more than I already am.
When Marc asks me to proofread, I assiduously remove the extra spaces in his document. Stubbornly, he adds them back. For extra fun, he inserts random commas or idiosyncratic punctuation or capitalizes words that don’t require it. I’m compelled to correct him. I’m probably insufferable to live with. (Yes, I know I just ended that sentence with a preposition.)
I silently copyedit everything I see. Newspaper articles. Instruction manuals. Cereal boxes. My emails. Your emails. Typos mortify me. I even try to proofread text messages before I click “Send.”
I’m not proud of it, but I patrol my husband’s speech, too.
“I met the new neighbor, he’s shorter than me,” he’ll remark.
“Shorter than I,” I add automatically.
“Hey, I don’t write the rules, I just cite the rules," I say.
Of Oxford Commas and Apostrophes
I’m not particularly persnickety. Well okay, I am, because every time I see the sign at Whole Foods that says “10 Items or Less,” I wince.
“Between him and I” affects me like accidentally chewing on a piece of aluminum foil.
“You’re smarter than me” makes me shudder. I correct it compulsively in my head —smarter than I, smarter than I — before I’m able to move on.
When NPR recently ran a story, “Regardless of what you think, ‘irregardless’ is a word,” I took umbrage.
The day Merriam-Webster decides to add “Covfefe” to the dictionary is the day civilization dies.
And what about misplaced apostrophes? Why do people persist in using errant apostrophes to make a word plural? All those yearly humblebrag holiday letters that go on in droning detail about every excruciating thing “The Smarmy’s” and their extraordinary children have done.
And what’s with the lack of Oxford commas in their endless lists of accomplishments? The AP Manual of Style says you don’t need it (Next Avenue, which follows AP Style, agrees). I insist you do. It’s for clarity.
Unfortunately, the Oxford comma also goes by the moniker “serial comma,” summoning up the similar-sounding phrase serial killer. Still, people have been killed for lesser infractions than a misplaced comma. Such as grammatically incorrect holiday letters.
Precise Language Can Be Comforting
Right about now, you’re probably thinking, Hey, Little Ms. Punctilious, there’s a pandemic raging, the polar ice caps are melting and you’re fixating on punctuation?
I’m not proud of myself. Even at the best of times, I tend to be cautious and risk averse. You won’t catch me jaywalking, running with scissors or heading out to dinner without calling ahead for a reservation. But that’s my point. In these scary times, using language precisely is comforting because it’s one of the few things I can control.
My husband may mock me, but he still has the same red hardcover eighth grade book as I, Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition. It warms my heart that he keeps a rusty paperclip on page 686 to remind him of the difference between "it’s" and "its." Complaining about people mixing up “their,” “there” and “they’re” or “whose” and “who’s” passes for pillow talk around here.
Please understand we are equally matched in nerdom (yes, it’s a real word). I recognized this immediately on our first date, when he read me an e.e. cummings poem. When he proposed two weeks later, I wondered what took him so long.
There are many crimes against humanity. Bad grammar isn't one of them.
Our home is filled with more than 5,000 books. Recently, my husband was going on and on in mind-numbing detail about an article he’d read on ancient Aztec funerary rites and I might have rolled my eyes.
“Hey, would you rather I spent my time oogling other women?” he asked.
'Grammar Police: To Serve and Correct'
I never correct anyone except Marc. I think that meme that says, “I’m silently judging your grammar” is smug and elitist.
I was the first in my family to go to college, but I’ve come to understand that my gold star education merely gave me literacy privilege. I’ve learned you can’t assess someone’s intelligence based on grammar choices.
Language is for communicating, and as long as we can understand each other, do the mechanics matter as much as I was once convinced they did?
Recently, Marc confessed he’d reset the Microsoft default on his laptop back to two spaces. But just this morning, he poked his head through my office door to inquire, “If I say ‘bi-weekly’ to you, what does that mean?”
“It means twice a week. But it can also mean every other week. It’s confusing.”
“I’ll look it up in Fowler’s,” he said happily.
A minute later, he was back. “You know, I love that we talk about this kind of stuff.”
On our anniversary last month, he gave me a T-shirt that says, “Grammar Police: To Serve and Correct.” I felt so seen.
I kissed him and said, “It’s perfect.”
There are many crimes against humanity. Bad grammar isn’t one of them. But if you’re as nit-picky as I, it’s possible you’ll catch an error or two in this essay. If you do, feel free to drop me an email.
Just be sure you proofread it first.