By Elizabeth Lombardo '19
“So, tell me why you’re here.”
A tall, confident semicolon leans forward intently and examines her patient’s dolloped face. The patient—an ordinary comma—closes his eyes and ponders this for a minute before responding.
“I suppose I’m overwhelmed,” the comma says at last. He lets out a long, labored breath.
“I don’t know. Everything. Everyone expects me to be there to save every sentence. And I want to. And I should be able to. But the pressure is just too much”. He pauses for a minute.
“What do you mean? What do they expect you to do?” the semicolon asks softly.
“Everything! Writers think that the comma can just hop in whenever they feel like ‘giving the reader a break’. But the reality is, we have to balance more jobs than a semicolon could ever imagine.” He looks up at the semicolon for the first time, as a look of discomfort blooms on his face. “Er—sorry,” he manages.
“Don’t worry about it; I chose this job for a reason!” the tall, lengthy punctuation mark says with a chuckle. The comma forces out a laugh.
“Forgive me for asking, but what exactly do you need to do—as a comma, that is?” the semicolon asks.
“Well, there’s separating lists, naming locations, setting off independent clauses, —-”. He talks faster and faster and more and more frantic until the semicolon shakes her head and interrupts: “Hey. It’s ok. You can do this. Let’s take this one step at a time. I am going to make a chart of the situations in which you are needed and then we’re going to figure out what you will do in each situation, ok?”
The troubled comma is sitting up now; his eyes dart from the therapist’s eyes to the dry-erase marker in her hand to the ticking clock on the wall. Tick, tick, tick. “But I’m not done. There’s so much more,” he says, his aggravation now escalating. The semicolon ignores this. She approaches the large dry-erase board behind the patient and draws a chart. She writes down the numbers 1 and 2 before the comma explodes: “I don’t think you understand!”
The semicolon puts on a soothing face and turns to the comma. “Ok. Help me understand, then. Give me a few examples of times that you feel you need to fix a sentence, and we’ll work through them together!” She crosses her legs and tries to put on her most patient and most cheerful face.
“Ok. Today, for example, I was at work, when I saw a group of punctuation marks working on a sentence. They tried to squash together the two statements: ‘I tried to untie my shoes’ and ‘I couldn’t’— separating them with a ‘but’. I felt a sharp pang in my chest, and I knew that I had to help them, even though I knew it meant I would be late for the Daily Comma Meeting. I rushed towards the mess of a sentence and inserted myself in between ‘I tried to untie my shoes’ and ‘but’. And thank goodness I did because that sentence was a mess. I had to help them!”
“See, that is where your perfectionism starts talking,” the semicolon says, and the tip of her period-shaped head turns up with a knowing smile. “You may think you needed to, but the truth is: that sentence would probably have been fine without you. I mean you don’t really need a break there. ‘I tried to untie my shoes but couldn’t’. See, I just said it fine!”
“But that’s just not correct!” the comma blurts. A tormented look fills his face. “People just don’t take the comma seriously.”
The semicolon nods and gives the comma a sympathetic look. “Ok, I get that. I do think that you need to understand something though: you aren’t expected to save every sentence. Sometimes, you just need to let some sentences go. You can’t do everything. Not every sentence is going to be punctuated correctly, and that’s okay.”
The comma looks as if he is about to protest, but the semicolon starts to talk before he has the chance to. “You really have to get comfortable with that idea. Plus, how many sentences can need a comma? I’m sure we can get this all under control, and soon everything will seem manageable.” She smiles, but the comma doesn’t believe her for a second.
“There’s more,” the comma mutters, crossing his arms. The semicolon nods, and the comma continues his rant.
“When people have a thought that is completely unessential to the sentence, two commas are needed to set off that thought. Otherwise, the reader freaks out and doesn’t know how to read the sentence. I cannot tell you how many times a fellow comma and I have had to intervene in a sentence with ‘who’ or ‘which’. But the absolute worst is when punctuation marks call me saying they need a second comma’s assistance, and their sentence includes a side note beginning with ‘that’. I am always trying to tell them that that’s just wrong. But they won’t listen! And I just can’t bear being responsible for a comma misuse. You know when you’ve just done or said something to a friend that you know hurt them? You know how it hurts you so much inside but you know there’s nothing you can do because you’ve already gone too far?”
The semicolon nods along and gives the comma—who is now staring blankly past the therapist’s head—a look of pity.
“It’s just—so much— all the time.”
“I know. I’m sorry,” she whispers. She doesn’t understand though. After all, how could a semicolon understand the trauma and hardships of a comma?
“I get a lot of semicolons in here, you know? They’re always worried about which sentences they should be helping.”
“That’s the thing! They’re worried because they aren’t needed. Two independent thoughts can do perfectly fine on their own—as two separate sentences. All they need is to ditch the conjunction, and replace you with a period! Admit it. You guys are not necessary. You’re… superfluous.”
The semicolon frowns. “Everyone has their own problems. You just don’t always see them,” she says quietly.
The comma lets his head hang to hide his frustration. “And the whole ‘supercomma’ thing? You’re just doing the job that we do every day! Like, you literally just do what a comma does. It can’t be that hard.”
The semicolon takes a deep breath and adjusts her position on the chair. Just then, a young, petite comma sticks her head in the office. The semicolon waves her over and motions for her to take a seat next to the patient.
The newcomer smiles. “Let me introduce myself—”
“Of course,” her husband interrupts, “that’s another job of the comma!” Then, he says in a mocking tone, “Comma Chief’s Rule number eight: proceed introductory elements.” Suddenly, the comma’s phone buzzes, and his right leg starts shaking. He reaches into his pocket and pulls it out.
“Jay got caught up in some confusion over a sentence,” a frantic man on the other line says, stopping for a minute to catch his breath. “We really need you to cover for him. Please tell us you’ll be there.” Before anyone can say a word, the comma leaps off the sofa, swings the door open, and catapults towards the lobby faster than the speed of light.
The two ladies he has left behind sigh and exchange a knowing look to each other before parting ways.
“See you next week.”
“Yeah, see you next week.”