Sidi J. Mahtrow

Ode To A Comma - Poem by Sidi J. Mahtrow

(or why use a comma?)

Lord Timothy Dexter anticipated the Danes,
By more than a century, in taking pains,
To ensure that those who read and write,
Could find a way if they might.

To inser punctuation, as they please,
Into the written word without a wheeze.
His solution was just and wisely decided,
A stroke of wisdom with a bit of humor provided.

Reacting to complaints that his book did lack,
The elements that educator and hack,
Insisted were essential if one was to understand,
The Writer's intent to a man.

He added a page at the end,
Not intended to offend,
But filled with commas, periods and such,
To be added to text by the reader's touch.

A review of Lord Dexter's 'Pickle' serves us well,
As reported in (not in html)
When in a stroke of genius with many a stroke,
'a pickle for the knowing ones' he wrote.

He reminds us that while proper language is no joke,
Rules of grammarians and pedants are a heavy yoke.
And with Government regulation,
There will be no sure-fire salvation.

, , , , , .....? ? ? ! ! ! !

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Poet's Notes about The Poem

This was penned in response to an article which appeared in the local (St. Petersburg Times) paper. And should have been laid to rest, except that with the coming of the Christmas (2003) season, a book was published to address problems related to punctuation and such. As with all new ideas (and it seems that punctuation is a new found idea for some; others just ignore it) even the title of the book raised the ire of some.

Ms. Lynn Truss' book, Eats, Shoots, Leaves has a shaggy dog tale from which it got its name. Much has been written on the Internet on the origin and spin-offs from the story which involves a panda (kola bear, various marsupials, mammals (including Australians)) and a prostitute.

Nevertheless, the attention given is enough (for Sidi Mahtow, at least) to reprint the following:

Listen to your heart to use a comma

Punctuation is a fine art, and its rules are difficult to pin down. Grammar books tend to say little on the matter, and habits differ from place to place, from British to American English, for example, and even within the same country. So who would ever think of trying to legislate such a thing as placement of a comma?

Denmark, where we are in the midst of a kommakrigen, or comma war. The situation is interestingly absurd. It fascinates me as a semiotician (I have no idea what a semiotician is) who believes that the study of meaning begins in wondering about the apparently meaningless. The conflict began in 1996, when the Language Committee of the Ministry of Culture presented a new system for putting commas into written Danish. The ministry recommended what it called the New Comma but hesitated to impose it for a simple reason: Its own clerks did not understand how to use it.

In 2000 and 2001 the ministry took to promoting the system in fliers, and the minister of ecology, a left-wing Social Democrat, announced that he had ordered his agency to adopt it. In his declaration, however, the minister also demonstrated his own incapacity to do so, and a polltico-linguistic-literature, controversy that had smoldered for years then inflamed the cultural pages of Danish newspapers.

Last year, the right-wing Conservatives took power, and fanned the flames even more. To the intellectuals of the ruling party, the New Comma is a left-wing emblem. To left-wing politicians it is an environmental cause; they see the old comma as a pollutant threatening to overrun the Danish language.

The Conservatives prefer a return to the system used from the 19th century until the World War II, when Danish was written according to German rules of punctuation, which required frequent commas, even in places where there seemed to be no natural pause. A sentence would be punctuated as follows: The man, I love, is a dentist.' The post-war atmosphere brought a distaste for all things German, and in the emancipated 1960s there arose an alternative method, with no rules, in which commas were inserted to indicate pauses of breath that occur in the natural rhythm of speech.

The result was embarrassingly chaotic, as no Dane could predict when or where his breath would lead him to place the little graphic monster. The conflict between the two attitudes toward punctuation was interpreted in political terms grammar is reactionary, breathing is progressive - and the issue was never settled.

In the general interest of progress, the Culture Ministry recommended the New Comma as a compromise, applying some grammatical rules to the essentially physiological system that recorded breaths. But in the years since, the comma debate has only grown fiercer. Anarchistic writers and teachers reject the New Comma as enslavement, radical intellectuals embrace it as progressive; politicians are on both sides; the literary Academy stays audibly silent; few people master the rules, and everyone is confused.

Educators, of course, want children to learn to write correctly, but while the country argues over what is correct, many people fear that Danish prose will decay, and with it Danish democracy. How can you have open dialogue in a society where no one will dare show how bad his commas are?

With the New Comma, you don't need to know where the verb and subject are; you just have to be aware of your thought. When your thought stops, you put in the comma before the next one. 'The man, I love, is a dentist' in the old German system becomes 'The man I love, is a dentist, ' because 'the man I love' is one thought.

And a very important Danish example: 'If you are thirsty, there is beer in the fridge' is correct according to the rules of the New Comma. But you must write 'There is beer in the fridge if you are thirsty' without a comma. In the former case, the thirst is the completed thought, therefore the comma follows it; in the latter case, you are still thirsty from the beginning, so no comma should be used.

Clear? No, say educators, because you have to analyze not just syntax of sentences but clauses. Yes, say reformists, just listen to your heart

This last argument is important in Denmark. It is a profoundly Protestant country, Lutheran Christianity is the religion of the state and a majority of adults are active believers. The anti-ceremonial, anti-Catholic, self-willed Lutheran Dane wants to listen to his heart only.

Unfortunately, his heart is not especially trained in distinguishing all kinds of tricky clause forms. If the New Comma ever became obligatory by law, the population would have to consult the national government directly every time they needed to write.

The solution, then, must be to reintroduce grammar. Few persons outside linguistics and philology ever master what is called 'school grammar' (the old German system) . But nobody has a clue how to use 'thought granmiar.' It might be against our religion, but we have no other choice.

Per Aege Brandt is professor of semiotics at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. Newsday'

As reported in the St. Petersburg Times, April 6,2002

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Poem Submitted: Thursday, August 30, 2012

Poem Edited: Monday, September 3, 2012

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