By Mary Bagg
Every once in a while I’m copied on an email exchange in progress and asked to police a point of style or grammar that has the sender in a quandary. My job is to render a quick decision (more as a judge than a law enforcement officer) and to hand down the ruling for editorial posterity. Here’s a recent example:
Berkshire’s CEO, Karen Christensen, sent an email to Ellie (one of Berkshire’s editorial assistants) and to Bill, the project coordinator for the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability, about enlisting an author to contribute to its tenth and final volume. Karen wrote: “I want to write to him with a proposal before we start the work, so the more you can give me to persuade him that this is an important opportunity, the better. (Hm, is that last comma right? I would love to have Mary’s opinion so am cc’ing her.)”
My judgment was swift: “In this case (and in this clause) using a comma (or not) is less about following a grammatical rule and, in Mudrick’s sense, more about providing a pause. It’s a “conversational” use — if you were speaking to someone you would most likely take a very quick “breather” at that point — but it also serves a reader well as a visual cue to do the same. As such, I would not edit it out of your letter.”
The “Mudrick” in question is Marvin Mudrick (1921–1986), a longtime essayist for the Hudson Review, the New York Review of Books, and Harpers, and also the author of Books Aren’t Life but then What Is — a writer and teacher who continues to inspire us. (Karen studied with him for two years at University of California Santa Barbara’s College of Creative Studies, and Berkshire’s focus on interdisciplinary scholarship can be attributed in part to his influence.) His no-nonsense approach to punctuation (“P.A.U.S.E”) is outlined in his own words, as transcribed from a 1983 lecture, in section 1.2.7 of the Berkshire Manual of Style for International Publishing.
Take a breather and check it out.
I’m waiting, fearfully, for the day when my writing becomes the object of the lesson. But it is good to be corrected. And better, as in this case, to be reassured.