On the first day of school, I always explained to my high school astronomy students that unfortunately they had ended up with a science teacher who had an english degree. You see, I explained patiently, the final step of the Scientific Method is communication and if you suck at writing then no one is going to give you money or take you seriously. And I made them write. A lot. Poor dears. I would have felt their pain if I hadn’t generated so much pain for myself – I had to grade all that crap. And crap it was. Oh yes.
The annecdote I always shared with them was that I had (successfully) made it through many writing classes without ever truly understanding how to properly use a comma (I also didn’t understand passive voice, but that’s another post). Until one day I began the one-semester science writing class for my geology degree.
My instructor (whose name I can’t remember but who fills me with terror to this day) was a paleontologist and had actually been an editor for the US Geological Survey. She was the meanest teacher I ever had. I thought I was a really good writer – at least, a really good scientific writer. But she disagreed. And come to find, she was right. Because you can’t be a really good science writer if you have at least three commas in every sentence. And I did. And do you know how she broke me of it (mostly)? She took off a point for EVERY COMMA. Can you imagine how many extra commas a comma-abuser can generate in a three page article on bivalves? A lot.
I will never forget the feeling when I saw those papers returned with big “D”‘s written on the top and red marks all over. It took me a few assignments before it sunk in that I was not understanding something. That I wasn’t a bad-ass writer. And I was angry at all those advanced and AP english teachers who never noticed. Why didn’t they notice? Why hadn’t they saved me from myself when I was still young and maleable? Why had they left me to the taunting of Dr. Paleo-er-than-thou?
So thank you, mean writing teacher. Thank you for not caring about my feelings at the expense of my learning. I still abuse commas sometimes, but at least I know I have a problem. I’m in recovery. I’m also really sensitive to comma-abuse in other people’s writing. I couldn’t get through the prologue of Game of Thrones because of all the commas and I’m told those books are a good read. So maybe I shouldn’t thank her after all…
You know how they wean heroin addicts using methadone? I think I’ve substituted ellipses and hyphens for commas. When I was reading back through this post, I deleted 4 ellipses. Criminal.
I just found and removed two unnecessary commas from the above post. Now that’s just embarrassing.