And Sammy Too

And Sammy, Too? Oh, No!

by Jane MacDonald

You think I don’t have trouble with grammar? Everybody has trouble with grammar. But my biggest problem is with punctuation.

When I was a little tot, I was taught that when you put “too” at the end of a sentence, you put a comma in front of it. Simple. Here’s an example. “I like artichokes, too.”

Life went on. I wrote a couple of million words. Being a dutiful person, I always put a comma before the “too” at the end.

After many years, I took up writing fiction and joined a world-renowned writers’ group — the Internet Writing Workshop. It was, and is, wonderful. Most of the critiques I write are, and always have been, line by line, and part of that has always been correcting bad punctuation. As time passed people began asking me to help them with that arcane subject. Because I am a cautious person, careful to avoid doing anything that might harm my spotless reputation, I began to try to learn more about it. I came to think I was pretty good at it, and a few other people thought the same. But everybody knows that pride goeth before a fall.

More and more writers seemed to ignore that rule about putting commas before “too.” Inserting them where needed, I used up my comma supply many times, and had to get more from a cut-rate online discounter in Switzerland. But I persevered. And then one day the worst happened. I saw a “too” without a comma in a published novel. Of course I charged it up to bad editing; it was obviously an aberration. Surely.

But it happened again. And again. Finally, to my utter horror, I found my attention riveted on a story in the New York Times–even there a writer had omitted that sacred comma. I fell prostrate with grief. I knew the political world was a shambles; my church was falling apart; the economy had nosedived. Even Martha Stewart and Sammy Sosa were in trouble. But this! O tempora.  O mores.  When punctuation begins to slip, Hell is the next stop.

I am not, however, the helpless type. It was time to bring in reinforcements. From the shelf over the computer came Bryan A. Garner’s “A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.” Looked up commas. Nada–not a word about “too.” Hauled over R. W. Burchfield’s “Fowler’s Modern English Usage: Third Edition,” the best currently available across the pond. Nothing. Now, this was getting serious. Back to Wilson Follett’s “Modern American Usage,” old but worthy. I look up “too”–nothing. “Also”–still nothing. “Commas”–zilch.

Amid all this, I am reading, a chapter at a time, for fun, David Crystal’s “Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.” This guy is a player–a famous linguist. And I run across a sentence without that comma where it belongs. I’m shaken, but I rally–can’t trust them damn limeys.

Somewhere, no telling, I hear about “disjuncts.” None of my books talks about them, but I’m hot on the trail. I’ve already checked the Commnet grammar guide on the Net and found nothing useful, but I find “disjunct” in the index. Oh, goody!

“Although it usually modifies the verb, we could say that it modifies the entire clause, too. Notice how ‘too’ is a disjunct in the sentence immediately before this one . . . .” Joy abounding! I am exonerated! Now when I stick that comma in, I know what I’m doing, and anybody who gives me trouble, I can shoot them down the way an F-16 does some crappy prop job. Fire off a URL and watch them spin in. Disjunct–a beautiful word.

But you know, I am not totally comfortable. I can’t quite ignore that Crystal fellow. His book is so good. I’m learning so much from it! I wonder–could he be right? And then usage is so sloppy; it does change. Maybe ten years from now all the respectable houses will have lost that comma, and then where I’ll be? Oh, well. Until that day comes, I’ll keep fighting the good fight. And I’ll win, too! I think.

P. S.  I’m now working on proper usage of “blonde.”