I got home and found a stack of mail on my desk.
Most of it was bills, bank statements, or catalogs for J. Crew, which advertised a stunning new summer collection specifically tailored for ordinary men and women. And by “ordinary men and women,” I mean people who are college age, over six foot, and weigh approximately 29 pounds.
So you can imagine my surprise when I tore open one envelope to find a type-written letter produced by a manual typewriter. Single spaced.
Moreover, this letter contained perfect grammar, flawless punctuation, and was written by a brilliant 14-year-old girl named Meg.
A girl who not only writes well, but also uses the Oxford comma.
See, Meg, I have a long history with the Oxford comma (also known as the Harvard comma, the serial comma, the final comma, or the comma that is smoking crack). I love this comma.
For the unbaptized, the Oxford comma is placed before the conjunction at the end of any list.
Here is an example sentence:
Whenever you come to Mrs. Biderbecke’s class, please bring a notebook, pencil, eraser, a protractor, and a compass which students will never use except to carve bad words into desks.
The last comma in the previous sentence is an Oxford comma. Personally, I use this comma all the time because this habit was beaten into me from an early age.
My grade-school teacher, Mrs. Biderbecke, was a Pentecostal preacher’s wife with a 14-foot tall beehive hairdo. She taught our class with a King James Bible in one hand and a riding crop in the other. She compelled all God’s children to use Oxford commas.
And it was good advice, too. Because the Oxford comma is so lithe, functional, and cute. It works so well that it’s nearly invisible. It is the Jan Brady of the punctuation world.
It is, however, easy to go overboard when using commas. When I was a kid, for instance, I fell in with the wrong crowd who listened to loud music, wore long hair, and overused commas. I’m not proud of this, Meg, but I became a comma abuser.
I started using so many commas that, sometimes, I didn’t even know, technically, which day of the week, specifically, it was, because writing one solitary run-on sentence, often riddled with thousands of commas, could take, literally, almost four, maybe five, weeks to finish writing.
My comma dependency all started with my friend’s older sister, Rachel. One time she suggestively said, “Using commas is fun. Everyone is doing it. Whenever you feel like pausing in a sentence, just use a comma.”
I downward spiraled after that. I started, adding commas, between all, sorts of, words, and sometimes, between, the lett, ers, of, wor, ds, them, sel, ves.
But getting back to the Oxford comma. When I attended college, I was pleased to find that the academic world believes strongly in Oxford commas. So life was good. The Oxford comma became pretty natural to me.
But then something happened.
I started writing for newspapers, which adhere to the AP style of English. Which is manner of writing that doesn’t require news writers to use things like Oxford commas, italics, research, or accuracy.
Things got even worse when I started writing books and working with literary editors. Suddenly, I was even more confused. Because many non-newspaper editors despise the Oxford comma, and some just hate commas in general.
To give you an example: The first draft of my first novel contained approximately 223,184,992,123 commas. But after my editor returned my manuscript, there were only four. Also the plot had been altered and the publishers changed my name from Sean Dietrich to Merman Hellville.
So now I don’t know what to do anymore about Oxford commas. In many of my current columns I use no Oxford commas, but newspaper editors liberally add them to my work anyway.
Subsequently, other editors remove all Oxford commas. Heaven only knows what the editors will do with this column. Probably douse it in kerosene.
I bring all this up to get to this:
In your letter, Meg, you called me a good writer. Then you encouraged me to keep writing even though some readers leave me nasty comments, or write ugly emails.
Your words uplifted me and touched me profoundly. Maybe more than you will ever know.
And each time I come back to your letter I am struck by your mastery of the English language. You are a way better righter than I is.
I also loved reading about how you started writing your own column entitled “Meg’s Column,” and about how you write this column each Monday for your mom.
My favorite part of your letter, however, is where you asked what kind of typewriter I own. Because I have three typewriters, Meg. I have a Lettera 32, a Remington No. 12 model, and a 1970s Smith Corona electric portable.
One of which will soon be arriving in your mailbox.
Your comma dependent friend,