Copy editors and others who are persnickety about the English language probably know the witty American usage guide “Lapsing Into a Comma.” The book is all about grammar and style and is well worth reading. But it’s the title that’s truly memorable — and it has been in the air again recently thanks to U.S. President George W. Bush.
The world’s most powerful mangler of English almost literally lapsed into a comma — and a linguistic firestorm — in remarks he offered recently on the situation in Iraq. The affair serves to remind us what Mr. Bush should have learned long ago: that words are little land mines, liable to blow up in our faces no matter how carefully we tread.
Hitting the campaign trail in the past few weeks in the runup to midterm U.S. elections, the president has found himself on the defensive as the news from Iraq suggests that the beleaguered country is edging daily closer to civil war.
Not so, says Mr. Bush. This difficult period may seem protracted now, a tunnel without the remotest glimmer of a light. But, he said on CNN last month, “when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma.” Apparently liking the way that sounded, he proceeded to air the comma analogy at least twice more on subsequent campaign stops, most recently last Tuesday.
The bloggers and pundits who wait on the president’s every word went nuts. On behalf of bereaved coalition families and Iraqi civilians alike, many immediately interpreted the phrase as a revealing slight, trivializing the tens of thousands of military and civilian deaths incurred in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
How, they railed, could Mr. Bush call such a bloody, intractable conflict a “comma,” a mere squiggle on time’s page? Barely a soul dissented: The president had either finally exposed the basic callousness that took him into Iraq in the first place or lost his grip on the language altogether. Perhaps both.
It wasn’t long before diligent word sleuths came up with findings that lent some nuance to the uproar. It was probable, they said, that Mr. Bush was merely echoing a phrase popular in certain Christian circles in the United States: “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.”
Don’t, in other words, think that the moment you are in is the end of the story; there’s more to come, and you’re not writing the script, anyway. What looks like a blank wall is actually a door. Get some perspective! And so on.
The idea remained opaque but was certainly somewhat more comprehensible than in the truncated form used by Mr. Bush. In a final twist, the phrase’s origin was tracked down to, of all people, the late American comedienne Gracie Allen. It had been taken up by Christian groups of both the right and the left but didn’t, evidently, begin with them. As the president used it, it didn’t even have a religious connotation.
Yet far from soothing ruffled feathers, that information only seemed to irritate some critics further. “That the president of the United States is describing a war that has caused so much pain and suffering and opened a Pandora’s Box in the Middle East with the words of a ditzy comic is bad enough,” one American newspaper editorialized. “That he manages to mangle the phrase in the process is appalling.”
Well, poor, innocent Gracie Allen. And really, poor Mr. Bush. The truth is, whatever one thinks of the U.S. misadventure in Iraq — the wisdom of launching it, the pros and cons of sticking with it — there’s nothing particularly stupid or sinister about the comma analogy. It’s a bit corny, and Mr. Bush’s shorthand version certainly sounded odd, but the sentiment he expressed is unexceptionable.
“When the final history is written on Iraq,” of course this terrible period will be just a flash, a flicker. Do the critics know how elongated Iraq’s history already is?
But that is to take the longest possible perspective. Even in the short term, the analogy actually works. The critics ought to have remembered something any grammarian could have told them — that the humble comma is an essential punctuation mark whose absence can change meaning.
Commas are pivotal. It seems obvious that Mr. Bush was simply trying to say that this is a pivotal period for Iraqi democracy. If it comes about, it will take years. Whatever happens, it turns on the conflict that’s playing out now. All of that is inarguable.
Nevertheless, words, like actions, can have unintended consequences. This comment on a comma blew up in Mr. Bush’s face. Just like the Iraq war. He and his advisers perhaps should have seen it coming.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.