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Issue 51 contributor Linda Morefield blogs about those pesky little twirls.

My daughter’s boyfriend, a policy analyst, asked me to explain commas to him. Someone senior to him at work had been critical of his use of those pesky little twirls, noting that he used them when he shouldn’t and didn’t use them when he should. Strunk and White was my knee-jerk response. But The Guy (as I’ll call him for the sake of his anonymity and keeping good relations with my daughter) wanted more. He had read Elements of Style, but what he read had no impact on his use of the beasts (according to marked up copies of text that his boss kept returning to him).

Because his work is classified and confidential, he couldn’t take me to the scene of the crime to see for myself what was happening. So I reached for the nearest magazine on the coffee table, a New Yorker, and randomly turned to an article by Tad Friend. I read aloud, sentence by sentence, and every time I came to a comma, we stopped to talk about how and why it was used.

What a revelation, much more for me than for him. The Guy got, and understood, the standard spiel about comma use in compound sentences and with dependent and independent clauses. But with Tad Friend’s deep flowing sentences, his rich and intricate thought and analysis, I had to go back to what I learned in sixth grade about the diagramming of sentences so that I could pull out subject and verb to show The Guy why there was or wasn’t a comma in the mix. (Who knew that what I once thought was a game had an actual and important use?)

I was astonished at what I learned from the detailed analysis of a single sentence.

So here is something simple. Please read with the caveat that any sentence that you analyze must be part of its context to make sense, just like words have connotative meaning and rhythm and style only when placed in the context of other words.

At the end of an informative and funny description about the filming of a scene from a Ben Stiller movie, Friend writes “It’s a shark, naturally, and Walter must pummel it with his bare hands.” That “naturally” establishes the good-natured camaraderie of author and reader. Those commas are a wink and a nod at the shared experience. The reader becomes companion as the author tells his tale. Read that sentence aloud, both ways, with and without the implicitly parenthetical “naturally.” See what you think.

Writers, we read as a way of learning to write, tearing apart admired short stories and novels to see how they work. Why does the author (fill in the blank with your favorite) begin her novel or short story at this particular incident and not another? What hook is used at the beginning? Why this particular point of view? What is gained? What is lost?

But to read at sentence level—not scene, not paragraph, but sentence—here is naked intimacy with the way the author thinks. Up close and personal and totally revealing.

Try it.

Linda Morefield, writer, editor and teacher, is thrilled that her essay, “Rescue Dog,” was published in the most recent issue of Potomac Review. She has also published short fiction, personal essays, book reviews and interviews. Linda lives in Virginia with her husband and the eponymous rescue dog, Montoya.

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