New York Times comma quibble sparks a Twitter kerfuffle

Author Ann Patchett dogs the Gray Lady with a lighthearted scolding about punctuation—and provides an object lesson in the curious nature of viral tweets. But is she right?

Be it known: Author Ann Patchett is a gifted stylist and novelist.

She is not, however, married to her dog.

Patchett was the object of a recent Twitter eruption when she wrote to The New York Times Sunday Book Review to clarify the matter after a reviewer committed some awkward phrasing.

Patchett’s letter not only provided a reminder of the never-ending debate over punctuation, but it also demonstrated the quirky power of the 140-character medium to skyrocket a message into the stratosphere, even for those with small numbers of followers.

In a letter headlined “Puppy Love,” the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novelist wrote to the Gray Lady:

I was grateful to see my book “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” mentioned in Paperback Row (Oct. 19). When highlighting a few of the essays in the collection, the review mentions topics ranging from “her stabilizing second marriage to her beloved dog” without benefit of comma, thus giving the impression that Sparky and I are hitched. While my love for my dog is deep, he married a dog named Maggie at Parnassus Books last summer as part of a successful fund-raiser for the Nashville Humane Association. I am married to Karl VanDevender. We are all very happy in our respective unions.

Not everyone agreed that an error of punctuation had been made. Several authorities said the Times’ real sin wasn’t a missing comma (it’s discretionary, they say) but using—and misusing—the trite construction from … to …

We’ll get to that later.

Outperforming Romenesko

Either way, Twitterdom noticed Patchett’s letter. Tom Bonnick, a London-based Twitter user who called attention to the letter, got nearly 2,500 retweets and 1,900 favorites, even though he has only 981 followers.

The tweet far outperformed a later one on the same topic by media critic Jim Romenesko, who garnered nine RTs and four favorites despite his having 98,000 followers. It pays to be timely on the fast-moving medium.

The press such as The Baltimore Sun and Salon joined in the fun. The Sun shrugged off the comma, but took issue with the Times’ sentence structure:

[T]he reviewer’s unfortunate implication rose not from failure to provide an uncommon comma, but from unthinkingly resorting to the ranging from construction.

A range, dammit, is a series of discrete bounded elements. From a to z and from soup to nuts describe the ranges of the alphabet and the dinner menu.

Ragan Communications Executive Editor Rob Reinalda suggests an alternative to from … to … constructions in this piece:

Instead of “range from … to …” use the tidy word “include” followed by a simple series. Remember this, though: When you use “include,” don’t list every damn contributor (or whatever). Those who are “included” are a subset of the entirety.

‘The utility infielder’

For those who suffer from comma confusion or are prone to simple human lapses, Reinalda offers pointers in another article that calls the shrimp-shaped mark “the utility infielder of the punctuation team.” Among his gems:

Then there is the dreaded comma splice. This occurs when two independent clauses are separated by a comma with no conjunction.

Wrong: The cat barked at the dog, it traumatized the poor pooch.

Though it’s unfair to those of us who shovel words like road asphalt, there is a greater tolerance for comma splices when literary writers play with sentences to reflect the inner rhythms of characters’ minds.

Nobody is going to correct a stylist like Patchett for a splice in her novel “Run”:

He was always seeing people as fish. He saw his patients as mackerel, as bass, that was how he remembered them.

The Times itself offered helpful reminders of comma use a couple of years back. Among the tips:

When an identifier describes a unique person or thing and is preceded by “the” or a possessive, use a comma:

Baseball’s home run leader, Barry Bonds, will be eligible for the Hall of Fame next year.

My son, John, is awesome. (If you have just one son.)

But withhold the comma if not unique:

My son John is awesome. (If you have more than one son.)

Still, we all love comma errors when made by others. Consider this list, which includes a sign said to be posted at a Malaysian resort: “CAUTION BE CAREFUL OF PARASAILING HORSES AND BUGGIES ON THE BEACH.” For my money, such lists are a tad less fun, though, when they include examples from Twitter illiterates.

Some people like comma errors so much that they fake them. A cover of Tails magazine was widely shared because of a headline that allegedly read, “Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.”

Turned out the cover was Photoshopped, and Ray’s family and dog remained uneaten. The magazine corrected the falsehood while keeping a sense of humor about it-a lesson not only for organizations, but for touchy individuals.

As for Patchett, her letter provided a chuckle, and her savvy reaped a bonanza of mentions—from soup to, well, Z.


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