According to Oxford University English professor Kathryn Sutherland, who examined 1,100 handwritten pages of unpublished work by Jane Austen, the much-celebrated novelist actually relied heavily on editor William Gifford to correct her grammar, spelling and punctuation. I don’t mean to go into a coma about commas, but this news gives me pause.
Back in the unruly 1970s, when I first began teaching Freshman-Sophomore English at the University of Kansas, much to the chagrin of my students, I was a stickler for proper punctuation, especially commas, semi-colons and apostrophes. I remember how, in anger and frustration, one of my students nearly came to blows with me when, during a scheduled conference in my office, I pointed out all the punctuation errors in just the opening paragraph of his latest essay. He snatched the offending magnum opus from me, looked me contemptuously in the eye, and shrieked, “When I’m your age, I’ll have secretaries who can correct my punctuation, and where will you be? Be sure to look me up if you’re still teaching English in this dump.”
I have no idea what happened to this particular student, but if he’s now married and owns his own business, I hope his wife is happy with all his secretaries, and that he hasn’t been responsible for any of them missing their periods.
It’s one thing when under-achieving freshman or sophomore err in their punctuation, and quite another when creative writing students make the same mistakes. Worse, if these creative writers are would-be playwrights, because the way dialogue is punctuated is exactly the way actors will say their lines. Here’s me talking to one of my playwriting students.
“No one wants you to be comma happy, but you need to use commas before and after forms of address, and also before and after sentence modifiers. Unless you do so properly, I’m not going to read your plays.”
“Well I’ll be…!”
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
“You aren’t well.”
“I feel perfectly fine.”
“Well I tried, but I can see this isn’t working. Oh, well.”
“What the f— are you talking about?”
Even if there are some, or maybe even many, among us who haven’t read her books, if we at least go to the movies, we should all know who Jane Austen is, thanks to people who churn out chick-flicks based on her novels; but, sad to say, until today, I, for one, knew nothing about some obscure 19th-century English editor named William Gifford, who was a stickler for grammar, spelling and punctuation.