Book review: “Comma Sense”

“Comma Sense” By Richard Lederer and John Shore (St. Martin’s Griffin) was published in 2005, but a paperback copy of the punctuation guide came across my desk recently.

In general, I like grammar/usage/style/mechanics books that are straightforward without a lot of frills and nonsense. New books must compete with the elegant “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White and with the alphabetically arranged usage guides like “Garner’s Modern American Usage.” I like books that give me the answers and advice I need without trying too hard to entertain me.


“Comma Sense” is entertaining, but it does have solid, practical and easy to understand guidance on punctuation. The jokes have a certain geeklike quality that I find funny. Maybe you have to be a copy editor to laugh aloud at the “hyphos,” a word the authors made up for the goofy hyphenation that appears in some words in newspapers: sung-lasses, barf-lies, sli-pup. The ones the authors made up are hilarious.

In the chapter on the apostrophe, when the writers are lamenting those awful signs such as “The Smith’s,” they have this to say about one that said “The Jone’s”: Here we have an atrocity of both case and number in one felonious swoop. Applying “atrocity” and “felonious” to an apostrophe error just tickles me. As my husband says about why the Three Stooges are funny, it’s not what they’re doing, it’s THAT they’re doing it.

Each punctuation mark is compared to a famous figure: the comma is detective Allen Pinkerton; the question mark is Albert Einstein; the dash is Fred Astaire. The writers actually carry off these conceits well enough that you want to smack your head. Of course, Ed Sullivan represents the colon. His work was all about introducing what came next.

The best part is the “Cheat Sheet” chapter at the end. It gives all the punctuation rules with a few humorous examples under each. That makes the book one I will keep nearby. The paperback copy has a suggested retail price of $9.95. It’s worth that.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.