Opinion & Editorial

Civil liberty more precious than properly placed comma


After 54 years of writing, you would think I could place a comma properly: think again. While my ear for proper language is strong, proper written grammar eludes me. My sister, Bessie, an assassin of a copy editor, has graciously been my lifetime editor. About how I use commas she once told me, “You haven’t got a clue.” My wife, Nancy, lectures me about prepositions. At least I’m a killer speller, and even if an occasional typo sneaks by, it’s not because I don’t know the difference.  

Lucky for me, rather than accept personal responsibility for my shortcomings, I blame it on having “skipped” the fourth grade, which was NYC public schools’ way of moving you through the system quicker if you were “advanced.” To jump to the fifth grade we had to read well and know our times tables. That was it! But when I got to the fifth grade I had no idea what the parts of speech were. I missed the grammar content of fourth-grade study, Warriner’s English Grammar Book, and it has plagued me ever since.  

I’ll concede that I was a precocious reader, never went in for Dick and Jane, The Hardy Boys, or even Winnie The Pooh. Instead, I jumped right into Manchild in the Promised Land, a memoir by Claude Brown about growing up in Harlem, and Or I’ll Dress You In Mourning, a biography about the celebrated bullfighter El Cordobes. My sixth-grade teacher, Miss Sweeney, was concerned about my reading choices. She sent my book reports home with comments like, “It might be better if Joey read less mature books.” Great lady, Miss Sweeney, but kids books held no appeal. 

Of course, I know verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs and articles, but placing commas is my great white whale.  

@#$%^&*) commas.

Having never recovered from what I missed in the fourth grade, I lean heavily on multiple drafts, copy editors when available, and now on various grammar checkers available in the computer age. Computerized grammar and spell checkers are never perfect, but they do catch obvious mistakes, and I’m always looking at new ones to assess the state of the art. 

This morning, Firefox, my Internet browser, offered a free grammar checker, and I was curious, so I clicked on the link to the application. There was a short write-up about the application and I thought why not give it a try. I pressed download, and this was the first thing that appeared:

The grammar checker wanted access to all my contacts and data from all the websites I visit? Seriously, what does a grammar checker need all of that for? I will do a lot to get a comma in the right place, but give up my privacy. That would be like signing away my Constitutional rights in exchange for an ice cream cone.  

Things are getting out of hand. The Internet predators – Google, Facebook, have set the tone for a callous disregard of privacy and what I grew up calling Civil Liberty. That disregard has trickled down to every developer who expects us to yield all of our privacy. I should have known better. In the spirit of there is no such thing as a free lunch, I should have asked myself why Firefox was offering something for nothing. I know the saying, “If you can’t figure out what the product is; you’re the product.” The free grammar checker is but a Trojan horse gaining entry to our thoughts, interests, hobbies and casual curiosities. Given that, I opted out of the grammar checker. If something feels funny, you don’t trust it, and you smell something fishy; that should give you a moment of pause; and we all know, even me, a pause is indicated by use of a comma.

And that is today’s grammar lesson!

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