My Name is Megan and I’m a Comma Addict.

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…

PS

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.

PPS

I just found and removed two unnecessary commas from the above post. Now that’s just embarrassing.

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9 Comments

Filed under Reflection, Writing Craft

9 responses to “My Name is Megan and I’m a Comma Addict.

  1. “substituted ellipses and hyphens for commas.”

    I love ellipses… Probably too much. πŸ™‚

  2. Golda

    PPS, that is really embarrassing, but at least you admit to your problem and are willing to work it out.

    Earlier this year I sent Anya to you for the editing of a doc. She makes your comma abuse look like a walk in the park. Her excuse was that Russians write that way. I think you need to have a talk with her.

  3. This is my newest favoritest post (yes, that’s a phrase) for I too have a comma problem. It’s to the point now that I’m so sure I’m using them A) too often and B) incorrectly, that I just try to avoid them, which makes for even more awkward reading.

    But the extra-special part? I sub with ellipses as well. Kindred spirits, you and I… πŸ™‚

    • My problem was using them for “breathing” marks. And like many people I managed to never learn the actual grammatical rules that apply to commas. Amazing. And an ellipse is just so useful… πŸ˜‰ I just learned a few days ago that there shouldn’t be a space after it, but it just looks wrong to me.

  4. Sioux McGill

    This may not apply entirely to your post but I found a wonderful use for a comma today. I was watching a news thing where they have those little news blurbs running along the bottom like ticker tape. I look up and see the words butt heads and had to pay closer attention. The full blurb read “Republican Candidates Butt Heads In Iowa” (I can prove it, news article here http://www.npr.org/2011/08/12/139577130/republican-candidates-butt-heads-in-iowa) Anyway I think this one should read “Republican Candidates, Butt Heads In Iowa” See an awesome use for a comma.

  5. Ugh, I’m terrible with commas. I have a tendency to change my sentence as I’m writing it too, which just makes me have all these extra commas I don’t need.

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