A Serpent in the Eden of Punctuation

By Joe Devine — September 12, 1990 3 min read

Joe Devine, a retired high-school English teacher in Seattle, has written a witty and concise book on grammar that is winning praise not only from educators, but from such media pundits as NBC News’s Edwin Newman and the syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick.

Using farcical tales that take the reader to such fictional locales as an archaeological site where scientists unearth The Cave of the Punctuation Mark and fall victim to the Punctuation Curse, Mr. Devine proves the thesis in his title: Commas Are Our Friends.

In the following excerpt, he displays his knack for personification with one of grammar’s would-be “bad guys"--the dash.

To many uninformed observers the punctuation society appears

to be a completely harmonious one. They see only the surface and miss what seethes beneath. To be sure, everybody is employed, and each mark has the security of knowing he is a specialist and the knowledge that he is needed and wanted. However, every Eden has its serpent, and the serpent in the garden of punctuation is Dash. He is diabolical, insidious, sneaky, and domineering.

How the other marks hate him! And well they should, for dash is a threat to them all. For years he has raided the other marks and crowded in where he was not wanted. He has muscled in on the Parentheses, Colon, Semicolon, and has actually challenged Comma. Not even Period feels safe any more and that takes some intimidating. ...

Dash was originally assigned to punctuate changes in thought, interruptions in thought, and some of the nonrestrictive [phrases and words], i.e., whenever any of them requires special emphasis. However, the fever of ambition raged unchecked within his bosom. Deceitfully he used his physical appearance (he looks so straight and clean) to gain his evil ends.

He keyed his campaign on a diabolical slogan of his own invention: “When in doubt--Dash.” This was intended to confuse people, to cause them to doubt their knowledge of the marks. And from doubt to Dash is an easy step. Millions of people, ignorant of his sneaky maneuvering behind the scenes, have fallen prey to the soft, easy solution he offers them. Carelessly they have strayed from the firm rules of punctuation.

Dash punctuates sentences where there is a change of thought; he indicates where the change occurs. Such as: I told Ed about you--but you already know that. Or: Where’s Ed--oh, I see him now.

Dash also marks interruptions in thought, as in: The Elm Street Packers--they were by far the worst team in the league--averaged five yards a game. Or: The Packers--they were winless that year--gave up 352 points in eight games.

Those nonrestrictive [words and phrases] which comma no longer wanted to punctuate were snapped up by Dash. Semicolon had also expressed interest in these nonrestrictive ones but Dash, always aggressive, just shouldered him out of the way. Sometimes these nonrestrictive [phrases] even contain a comma or two. See for yourself in the following sentences: The plan--which Sam thought of--worked perfectly, even better than Jack’s. Or: Jack’s proposal--which, ironically, was really Sam’s idea--was a failure. Notice how Comma is placed in these sen4tences. He is forced here to work with Dash, a mark he despises. But he does his duty. “Service first, pride last,” is Comma’s motto.

Dash also sets off appositives if special attention is to be paid them. For example: Cindy loved one thing above all else--her car. Or: Cindy’s worst enemies--Tina, Heather, and Susie--stole her car one night.

Dash is so obnoxious he can cause trouble without the help of the Punctuation Curse. So many things go wrong with Dash that the Curse does not even need to apply itself. That is a frightening and a sobering truth. Beware of Dash. Above all, do not overuse him.

From Commas Are Our Friends: The Easy, Enjoyable Way to Master Grammar and Punctuation , published by Green Stone Publications, Seattle. Copyright 1989. Reprinted by permission.

A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 1990 edition of Education Week as A Serpent in the Eden of Punctuation