“Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”

Last night, as  part of a two-day birthday treat, we went to the Blackbird Theatre Company’s production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play, The Rivals, a comedy of manners in five acts, first performed in London in 1775. It was wildly funny. Mrs Malaprop made us laugh every time she opened her mouth. I hoped I wouldn’t forget any of her best lines — she describes her young niece’s suitor as “the very pineapple of politeness,” and later, realizing she (and others) have been duped, she takes the high road, saying,”We will not anticipate the past, our retrospection will now be all to the future”. I think my favourite malapropism was “Female punctuation forbids me to say more.”

Apart from the humour of that line, do you think there is such a thing as “female punctuation”? I am married to a poet who taught college English for more than 30 years. He has very strong opinions about the use of commas. “When in doubt, leave it out,” he always says. Or “less is more.” Recently he copyedited a manuscript for me and he lamented my over-use of commas. I can defend each and every one of them and I don’t believe I use them incorrectly but I’ve begun to try to come up with reasons for the way I use them. They’re not there simply to separate clauses or items in a list but also for timing. And is it really acceptable to use a comma for timing?

An online site, Oxford Dictionaries, suggests not. Here’s what the site has to say about the comma:

A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses. Many people are uncertain about the use of commas, though, and often sprinkle them throughout their writing without knowing the basic rules.

While I’ve been sitting here thinking about this, I’ve also been listening to my favourite singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing a duet from Handel’s opera, Guilio Cesare, with another ravishing singer, the countertenor, Drew Minter. The duet is “Son nata a lagrimar” and it’s one of the last pieces I tried to learn when I took voice lessons. Handel is a singer’s dream composer. He showcases the voice, giving it a place to shine — without the pyrotechnics of, say, Mozart. Pyrotechnics are all very well for those who have quick-silver agility: a coloratura like Cecilia Bartoli, for example. But Handel’s settings are burnished, like fine gold, with a warm patina. Anyway, as I listen to this and remember how I began to understand the use of the fermata when trying to sing Handel, I think, Oh, now there’s something that ought to find its way from musical notation to the literary text. The fermata, says my Shorter Oxford Dictionary (the one in two volumes, with tiny tiny type), is “A sign indicating an unspecified prolongation of a note or rest.” If you look at these bars of that duet, you can see it right at the end of that last bar, over “piu”.

fermataHow long does one hold that? It’s a matter of discretion — the singer’s as well as the conductor’s. The note is coloured by so many things and this particular duet is heart-rendingly sad. “I was born to weep”, sings Cornelia, as she contemplates what will happen to her stepson Sesto after she refuses to marry a general who is responsible for the death of her husband Pompey. So lingering on that “piu” (it means “more”) wrings every last bit of sorrow out of it.

Learning to sing taught me something about how words sound in the head as well as the mouth, in the heart as well as the throat. I’m thinking that it might be time to introduce the fermata into textual punctuation. Imagine it. A note from writer to reader — read this aloud, linger over the line, draw out this word, this phrase, allow yourself to take it into your heart, longer than a comma, a semi-colon. Take your time. Breath a little. Forget the grammars and the stylesheets. Mrs. Malaprop, impatient with her niece Lydia Languish, says of her, “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” I can imagine a fermata over the “allegory”, a very feminine form of punctuation whose time has perhaps come.