Tuesday, 23 August 2022

Dunsany on the Comma


Another brief extract from the first of the three ‘Donellan Lectures’ which Dunsany gave in 1943 at Trinity College, Dublin. Here he amusingly bewails the tendency of 1940s printers to add superfluous commas to texts. (Modern copy-editors are more likely to remove them!)


[Commas] are little things, but to ignore these fatal pests when speaking of prose is as though I were to speak of the splendours of Africa and never mention the malarial mosquito. Between the African traveller and the ends of all his journeys hovers a veil of these nearly invisible insects, often only irritating, sometimes thwarting his enterprise; so, between every writer and his readers come these little commas bred in the printer’s office, as the anopheles breed in marshes. Certain words are like treacle to them, and any writer who makes use of the word perhaps, must expect them to come to him in swarms. Perhaps I exaggerate, but certainly two will come. The writer puts down, ‘I am going to Dublin perhaps, with Murphy’. Or he writes, ‘I am going to Dublin, perhaps with Murphy’. But in either case these pestilent commas swoop down, not from his pen, but from the darker parts of the cornices where they were bred in the printer’s office, and will alight on either side of the word perhaps, making it impossible for the reader to know the writer’s meaning; making it impossible to see whether the doubt implied by the word perhaps affected Dublin or Murphy.

I will quote an actual case that I saw in a newspaper. A naval officer was giving evidence before a court, and said, ‘I decided on an alteration of course’. But since the words ‘of course’ must always be surrounded by commas, the printer’s commas came down on them, as surely as the mosquito upon a man’s ear, and the sentence read, ‘I decided upon an alteration, of course’. [...] I saw not long ago a story of my own in a New Zealand paper, where the commas seem to have bred more abundantly than they even do in our climate. I read for instance the words, ‘breathing, of course, ceased, too.’ Although this flight of commas looks absurd, it does no actual harm, but ... further on in the same story I had written, ‘for the surgeons had got his heart going again, and however the soul knew, it returned and got back in time’. But the word however is one of those sticky words which attract the printer’s commas, so down came two of them. It then read, ‘for the surgeons had got his heart going again, and, however,’ but I need read no further, for it is now merely nonsense.

Once when I had written upon this subject in some paper there came a hoot of triumph from a printer’s reader, or one of his friends, and he described how printers had ruined a line of Gray’s Elegy: he said that Gray had written a comma after the third word, the curfew tolls, but that a printer had improved the line by leaving the comma out. I don’t know how he knew, but the moment I read what he wrote I saw the harm the printer had done, and saw for the first time that Gray would never have opened his elegy in the solemn hour when the curfew tolled for the dying day with so jingling a line as the one that has been handed down to us: 'The curfew tolls the knell of parting day'.

This must have been, as that friend of printers stated, what Gray wrote:

 'The curfew tolls, the knell of parting day'.


NB: I'm sceptical about this. (And how Dunsany can suggest that line is remotely 'jingling', I do not know!) It's true that adding the comma slows the pace to something more stately, transforming the second half of the line into a reverberant adjectival clause. (The tolling curfew does not produce, but IS 'the knell of parting day'.) However, the first lines of almost all the other verses flow smoothly and comma-less: 'Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight' - 'The breezy call of incense-breathing morn' - 'Full many a gem of purest ray serene'...  Still, it's interesting to see the difference that can be achieved by the placement of one little comma. [KL] 


Picture credit:

Designs by Mr. R. Bentley, for Six Poems by Mr. T. Gray (1775) 


1 comment:

  1. Of course (!) it would've made more sense if Gray had written "The curfew, the knell of parting day, tolls" or even "The knell of parting day, the curfew, tolls" but that would surely have seen the death knell of of the rhyme in "the ploughman homeward plods his weary way." And now now we're stuck with a certain prunter's devilment...

    Thanks for sharing this morsel of enlightenment!