Commas and outtakes

I wrote a story once about an ancestor named Sam Burgess—at least I thought he was my ancestor. “Imagining Sam Burgess” was a process piece assigned as part of a creative nonfiction workshop, and it detailed the process of making pottery in 1840s Staffordshire. My maternal grandmother immigrated from The Potteries in the 1920s, and I’ve spent a couple of decades researching our family’s shenanigans there.

The story won a competition and was published by a genealogical society whose motto was something along the lines of “truth, truth, and nothing but the truth by way of carefully documented research.” And then I found out that the Sam I had imagined, the Sam I researched and wrote about, was in no way related to me. I had the wrong Sam Burgess.


I had to cut Sam down from my family tree. In other words, he became a comma.

When I created this blog and named it commatology, I noted that commas are many things: punctuation marks that indicate a pause or separation; minute intervals; cracks in consciousness; infinitesimal gaps in the journey toward oneself; butterflies with ragged wings. They are also scenes that don’t work in the play, or stories that don’t belong in the book. Filmmakers call them outtakes. Reporters (and certain photographers) file them in the morgue. I christen them commas. supports this usage:

The comma’s ancestors have been used since Ancient Greece, but the modern comma descended directly from Italian printer Aldus Manutius. (He’s also responsible for italics and the semicolon!) In the late 1400s when Manutius was working, a slash mark (/, also called a virgule) denoted a pause in speech. (Virgule is still the word for comma in French.) Manutius made the slash lower in relation to the line of text and curved it slightly.


In the 1500s, the virgule was renamed comma, a word that comes from the Greek koptein, meaning “to cut off.” The word comma literally meant “a piece cut off.”

As a writer, I am drawn to what the late Heather Robertson called true stories and others call creative nonfiction. I’m interested in people. Dead people mostly. Some still alive. I have two books in the works and they’re both full of people and their stories. But some of the most interesting stories I’ve encountered in the course of my research don’t fit the parameters of either book. I hate to waste them, so I’m going to share some of them here, under the commas tab that I added last night.

For old times’ sake, I’ll start with Sam.

2 Responses to “Commas and outtakes”

  1. carin

    Thanks for this short history of the comma. And the virgule! I just read a play where it was used often at the beginning of dialogue. I wondered if that was its purpose… and I certainly didn’t know its name. Nice when someone reads your mind like that. (:

    Looking forward to your ‘people’ commas!


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