Commas take a while. Learning how to use them, that is. And there are lots of rules that have evolved over the years. In my old Warriner's: English Grammar and Composition: Complete Course (a book we English teachers used to employ at Western Reserve Academy) "The Comma" consumes some fifteen pages of text, nineteen items in the index, eight rules (some with many subsections).
Of course, we need to remember that we made up both the comma itself and its numerous rules. Commas and comma usage did not come down the mountain with Moses--possibly because God figured it would be a waste of time. People are just going to, you know, scatter them around like seeds at planting time.
Teaching in a middle school, I used to see them all over the place in kids' sentences--proof that God, as usual, was right. I taught rules relentlessly, and some kids got it; others didn't. So it went.
Anyway, I'm not really writing about comma rules today (Whew! sigh those who have bothered to read this much) but about a famous comment about commas, a comment I've often wondered about--and now have the "truth." Maybe.
Throughout my reading life I have occasionally come across this anecdote: Someone asked a writer how he'd spent his day. "Well, he said, "I spent all morning deciding to insert a comma--and all afternoon deciding to take it out."
I've seen this attributed to several writers--but one I can specifically remember is poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), a poet whose work I love, by the way. An early Robinson biographer credited the quotation to EAR.
Today, I was reading someone who attributed it to Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), another writer whose work I love.
So ... who said it? Robinson? Wilde? Flaubert (another favorite)? Someone else? Mr. (or Ms.) Apocrypha?
Off I went to Google, where I quickly found the answer on quoteinvestigator.com. (Here's a link to the entire entry.)
Here's what I learned: The earliest reference discovered is from an 1884 NY newspaper, the Daily Graphic, and here's the quotation:
Oscar Wilde, among his various stories told here of which he was always the aesthetic hero, related that once while on a visit to an English country house he was much annoyed by the pronounced Philistinism of a certain fellow guest, who loudly stated that all artistic employment was a melancholy waste of time.
“Well, Mr. Wilde,” said Oscar’s bugbear one day at lunch, “and pray how have you been passing your morning?” “Oh! I have been immensely busy,” said Oscar with great gravity. “I have spent my whole time over the proof sheets of my book of poems.” The Philistine with a growl inquired the result of that.
“Well, it was very important,” said Oscar. “I took out a comma.” “Indeed,” returned the enemy of literature, “is that all you did?” Oscar, with a sweet smile, said, “By no means; on mature reflection I put back the comma.” This was too much for the Philistine, who took the next train to London.
So ... unless an earlier discovery obliterates this one, let's let Oscar have it--because, you know, after all we did to him ...