October 16, 2002 News & Features » Cover Story


4 things that drive Rosie Right nuts 

Rosie turned to a friend who has taught writing, and he told her, "I put a comma in when I feel like it." No help.

Norm Goldstein, editor of the AP Stylebook sent the following comments from Jack Cappon, AP word maven:

"Commas …handle enough major roles to qualify as virtuosos among punctuation marks. And as temperamental performers, they need to be treated with respect and precision. They'll cause trouble when misplaced, as they often are, and cause even more trouble when they are erroneously omitted …"


An e-mail to Barbara Wallraff, editor of Copy Editor, language columnist for The Atlantic Monthly and the author of Word Court, elicited the following, which Rosie offers her readers:

"For years I've flirted with the idea of devising a 'comma decision tree' -- as in, 'Would the comma you're thinking of using appear before an and? Yes/No. If yes, is the and the last element in a series of three or more parallel things? Yes/No. If yes, go for it! That's a "serial comma"; not everyone uses them, but most literary writers do. If no, is the and …' But every time I start to work on this thing, I am reminded afresh what a rat's nest of choices commas involve. The decision tree is still on my to-do list -- right underneath organizing everything in all the drawers in my house."


2. Misplaced modifiers.

Every now and then a real beauty gets by our copy desk (usually manned by Rosie). To avoid writer humiliation here are a couple of imaginary examples: "Dripping with water, the painting displays a child caught in the rain." Or "Washed in blood, director X has given us a fascinating violent film."

3. The constant misuse of lie and lay.

This unfortunately is one problem that is about to be solved by the disappearance of the distinction. We are doomed to read and hear sentences like "I am going to lay down." Rosie will continue to be an old fogy about this development.

4. Finding an error in Rosie's column after it is published.


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