More from the rerun file

I’ve had little creativity since the sinusy stuff, so here’s another one from the archives. It originally ran on April 21, 2004 and was titled “I Still Police Commas.”


In my third year of law school, I was required to execute a major project. This “thesis” we were required to turn in halfway through our third and final year was also known as the “Independent Writing Project” or IWP. We called it the “I-whip,” a beleaguered nod to the fact that it was a killer of a project. Professor David Gregory was my advisor for this project. “Advisor” should probably be relabeled “tutor.” The advisor’s role is to guide, discuss and help with the project as much or as little as they deem useful or necessary. Finally, they are to grade it.

Professor David Gregory was the advisor you would choose if you had either serious chutzpah or serious masochism issues. Or, in my case, I chose him because I was already working for him as a researcher and had come to know him the tiniest bit. His intellect was deep, his learning was broad, and his wit left none unscathed. He was especially fond of telling a story at the beginning of class, pausing for dramatic effect as he cast his light blue gaze over the class, and intoning in his rough-voiced New England drawl, “Now I ask you…” That seemingly simple question meant he was about to seriously rewire your world-view. He did it so often that we got used to the feeling of having the world dumped upside down and shaken like a snow globe. Some of us even got to liking it. I don’t remember anyone ever getting the better of him in discussion or argument. But when he sparred verbally with you, you at least thought he might believe you were worthy of the effort.

The time-honored ritual of IWP process included turning in drafts as you went along. In due course, I turned in my first seven pages – the introduction – and got back seven pages of red ink.

Most of these were deleted commas.

Before I went to law school I thought I could write. My first year writing class taught me that yes, maybe I could write, but I couldn’t write like a lawyer yet. I had a lot to learn about building an argument – crafting phrases that carefully built up your own position while refuting the other side’s strongest points until finally there was nothing to do but agree with the writer. Legal writing is a lot like a geometric proof that way. Each step must be explained. Nothing can be left to the reader’s assumption. Leave out a step and you’re finished.

By my third year, I had the structure of legal writing down pat. I wasn’t going to leave out an “if” on my way to the “therefore.” I knew the rules and had become confident of my ability to play the game. Occasionally, I did worry that I was losing whatever flair I might have possessed for writing fun, stylish prose. I hadn’t counted on losing my grip on punctuation. I remember getting that paper back, flipping through it, and feeling a terrible, sinking feeling. Professor Gregory didn’t address a single premise that I had laid out in that introduction. He didn’t challenge my pre-stated conclusions and he didn’t approve of them. He hadn’t engaged me as a lawyer or lawyer-to-be. Instead, he had come at me like an avenging angel from Strunk’s bible and cut me low.

I brought the paper home and stared at it for a while, blurry eyed, not seeing. Finally, knowing I had to get stuck in and get on with it, I started to read what I had written, or to read what I could behind the thicket of red circles and deletions. And I realized something. Somewhere along the line, in a serious-minded attempt to insure that each thought received attention, I had started to carve up my prose with commas. I am a rapid reader. Perhaps I was trying to tell the reader, “Please slow down.” At any rate, the Professor was right. My prose was littered with fidgeting, distracting, unnecessary punctuation.

Over the next few months I handed in other drafts to Professor Gregory. He never handed another one back. They disappeared into the shelves and piles that made his office into a dark labyrinth where the student picked her way through, off balance and unready for the Minotaur with twinkling blue eyes and smoker’s voice. We didn’t discuss the project again until I asked for an extension, which was granted. In retrospect, considering I had chosen this particular project because I was already researching the subject for the Professor, that was kind of him. At long last, after a long night of paging through a near-final draft with my own red pen in hand, I printed off and handed in the completed project. I had worked on it for so long, I had no idea if it was the best work I had ever done or if it was inferior kindling.  Having no outside feedback, I didn’t have so much as a string in the dark to follow towards the light.

Having slid the paper into the Professor’s mailbox, I then commenced about two weeks’ worth of evasive action. I had a class with the Professor, so I came into the room just before class began and bolted the moment it was over. I didn’t walk past his office. Having cast the die, I was afraid of how it would fall. Mostly, I didn’t want to disappoint the Professor. He had been kind to me in his gruff, elusive way. He seemed to think I had potential. I hated to prove him wrong.

He caught me one day. It was inevitable. I was waiting for a friend, and suddenly he was there. I froze like a frightened rabbit. I didn’t hear his words as he spoke, and the extended hand was incomprehensible to me. Pulling what he had said from my short term memory I realized he had said, “Congratulations on an excellent paper.” I took his hand dumbly, and he shook it solemnly.

It was one of the two A grades I ever got in law school.


  1. Congratulations on the (long past) A! And, by the way, I do the same thing. In my “real” writing, I have to go back and take out probably half the commas. I think I add them reflexively when I pause to think.