Purple Hair and Punctuation

We wanted a book like this.

“What are the names of three of your child’s little friends?”

That was the question that stumped us. I was standing at a kiosk in the mall with my friend Linda. We were buying a personalized children’s book for our friend Judith, who was turning fifty.

We had decided which book we wanted, a birthday book. We had filled in the blank that asked for the name of the child being honored: “Judith.”

We’d entered the name of the town where she lived and the street she lived on.  But now we’d been asked for the names of her three best friends.  We looked at each other.  We were only two.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Linda.  We’ll just put in your name and mine. “What difference does it make?” Linda lives in the real world.  I’ve always admired that about her.

In just a few minutes, the book was printed and a hardbound copy was printed for us. It was beautiful, with colorful balloons on the cover. I read the opening lines:

“It was a beautiful day on Sunnyside Road in Scotia, New York.  Judith was very happy.  Today she was fifty!”

Perfect! We gave the girl at the kiosk cash for the book and walked away.  I turned the page and continued reading:

“Judith and her little friends Margaret, and Linda.” I stopped short. This was a problem. A serious problem. I turned towards Linda. We needed to talk.

“Linda,” I whispered. I looked around to see if anyone else was nearby. “The book is incorrect. “ Linda looked at me skeptically.

“It’s the punctuation,” I said.  “It’s all wrong. Oh, it would be fine if we had put in the names of three little friends.  But with only two little friends…” Again, Linda looked at me, and this time I swear she rolled her eyes just a little.

“Linda,” I said. “That comma between Margaret and Linda.” I took a deep breath. “It shouldn’t be there.”

I waited for the look of horror on her face.  As far as I was concerned, the book was ruined.  But from Linda, nothing.

“Oh, it would have been fine, don’t you see,” I continued, “It would have been fine if there had been three little friends. Then the comma would have been correct.  But with only two little friends, it’s all wrong. “

But from Linda, no reaction at all.

“We’ve got to do something,” I said.  We’ve got to go back to the kiosk and tell the woman working there.  Other people buying books must be making the same mistake.  They’ve got to know: There must be three little friends, or the punctuation will be wrong!”

Linda gave me a long, withering, oh-my-god-what-will-I-do-with-her-look.

“Margaret,” she said, in a surprisingly patient voice. “I don’t think a woman with purple hair and combat boots is going to worry about punctuation.”

Now it was my turn to be puzzled and confused. I hadn’t noticed anything different about the young woman who had helped us.

“She had purple hair?” I asked. “And combat boots?”

***

A few days later, we took Judith to dinner.  She unwrapped the book and laughed.  Then, in the restaurant, she began to read:

“It was a beautiful day on Sunnyside Road in Scotia, New York.  Judith was very happy.  Today she was fifty!”

She turned the page and continued to read.

“Judith and her little friends Margaret, and Linda…”

She stopped short.  This is all wrong,” she said. We waited.

“It’s the punctuation! There shouldn’t be a comma between Margaret and Linda.”

***

Copyright by Margaret French

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4 thoughts on “Purple Hair and Punctuation

  1. Margaret, maybe you could have given us – somewhere – Gertrude Steins explanation and exploration of why NO comma between Margaret and Linda! They like each other, yes? They are equals, yes? Not enfeebled?
    Anyway, delightful! Your posting, as well as Gertrude’s!

    “And what does a comma do, a comma does nothing but make easy a thing that if you like it enough is easy enough without the comma. A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it and the comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. It is not like stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath. Anyway that is the way I felt about it and I felt that about it very very strongly. And so I almost never used a comma. The longer, the more complicated the sentence the greater the number of the same kinds of words I had following one after another, the more the very more I had of them the more I felt the passionate need of their taking care of themselves by themselves and not helping them, and thereby enfeebling them by putting in a comma.
    So that is the way I felt about punctuation in prose, in poetry it is a little different but more so …
    — Gertrude Stein
    from Lectures in America

  2. I’m afraid I’m a kindred spirit when it comes to punctuation. I can’t even text without getting the punctuation just right! And with my poor texting skills, that can take a while!

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