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Safire Deleted: Commas cry, hyphens hang their heads

William Safire’s death at the beginning of the week left me a bit melancholy. I’ve always loved his columns On Language in the New York Times. I’ve been reading them for as long as I can remember. His death also left me puzzling over why grammar even matters.

Grammar, language and punctuation matter enormously to me personally, and they are obviously taken very seriously here at Communispace as well. In my new role at Communispace in charge of Our Editorial Excellence Swat Team*, running proofreading, I am charged with wielding a mean thesaurus, an unforgiving stylebook (AP’s) and performing emergency comma-ectomies when I deem the patient is in great need. But why do we care about language to this extent? Why should anyone care? Why did Bill Safire care? Really, why care about a comma?

Easy. It feels good to get it right. In the same way our clients toil to get the best laser printer to market, create the most delicious snacks, or make shopping at their stores an exciting, satisfying, money-saving adventure, we honor their hard work with our own editorial excellence. It matters to deliver reports which are well-written, interesting and correct! It’s the right thing to do.

William Safire was a fellow soldier — five-star general really — on the rocky road to perfect punctuation and exquisite language. When I followed a link in Twitter to Safire’s obit, I had to twit back: “The commas are crying, the dash depressed, the ellipsis existential, and the hyphens hang their heads.”

As I read his long obituary, I couldn’t help wondering if he ever got a chance to copyedit that article himself. His advice on proofreading was perfect: “Proofread carefully to see if you words out.” He was a great writer, a wonderfully picky grammarian, a sly stylist. He knew it mattered to write well and say the exact thing you meant. He made grammar matter to us. We will miss him.

*Not my real title, I’m actually “Senior Consultant, Idea Group.”

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