The Comma Queen

The New Yorker magazine (which features writing so good that it sometimes gives me chills) has a new video feature: Veteran copyeditor Mary Norris, aka the Comma Queen, is offering insights into the thinking processes she uses when she works on a New Yorker article. You can view the kick-off video at this link:

Sigh. The video full of grammatical jargon. Why? Why? Why? After more than 30 years as an English professor, I can tell you that most students never really get a handle on what subjects and predicates are. They have no idea what an independent clause is. Mind you, I’m not complaining about my students. What I’m complaining about are English teachers and editors who can’t find a more straightforward way of talking about language.

Here’s an example from the video. Mary’s question: Is the comma after sixteen necessary?

Her mother, Rachel Faucette, the daughter of an Englishwoman and a Frenchman, inherited her father’s Nevis plantation at sixteen, and was married off, very young, to Johann Michael Lavien, an older Danish man with aspirations to be a planter.

In the video, Norris patiently explains that inherited…and was married off is a compound predicate and therefore should not be interrupted with a comma.

That’s great if you’re an English major and can instantly identify a compound predicate. But what if it’s been, say, 40 years since you sat in an English class and you can’t remember?

Here’s how I would talk about this sentence: Zoom in on the word and. Ask yourself if there’s a new sentence right after it. (It’s easy to tell: See if it starts with a person, place, or thing.)

and was married off

Is there a sentence after and? Nope. (If it read she was married off you’d have a sentence and need the comma.)

Quick. Simple.

While we’re at it…I started this post by praising the writing in The New Yorker. But I don’t like the sentence we’re talking about today: There’s too much information.

Rachel Faucette:

  • was someone’s mother
  • was the daughter of an Englishwoman and a Frenchman
  • inherited his Nevis plantation when she was sixteen
  • married Johann Michael Lavien
  • was young when she married

Oh, and there are three more pieces of information: Her husband was older and Danish, and he aspired to be a planter.

You’re going to cram all of that into one sentence? Why? Why? Why?

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