Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Tennis, Pickleball, and Commas

 A few weeks ago, some very good friends of mine introduced me to something called pickleball. This is a game that's a sort of weird amalgamation of tennis and . . . well, maybe ping-pong or squash, I'm not sure, with perhaps some bastardized badminton thrown in for good measure. It's as if tennis and table tennis and squash and badminton all got together and had a particularly ugly baby. (Though I'm of the opinion that all babies are ugly. Except for mine. My babies were—and remain—beautiful.) I'm not sure I like pickleball very much, but I do like my friends quite a bit, and if I have to play such an odd game in order to spend some time with them and get a little exercise and fresh air, so be it.

A pickleball court. Oddly enough, the game was invented
in Washington state by a former state representative
named Joel Pritchard and a couple of his buddies. Mr.
Pritchard would eventually be elected to the U.S. House
of Representatives and later went on to become Lieutenant
Governor of the state of Washington. Go figure. (Image

licensed under the under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0
Universal Public Domain Dedication.)
I really prefer tennis, though, and naturally that got me thinking about commas. (Because when you're an English teacher, it doesn't take much to make you start thinking about commas.)

I was thinking about the fact that tennis is one of those "skill" games. It's not enough to be fast (I'm not), strong, (I'm definitely not), or athletic. (Hahahahah! Really?!) Those are enough to make you a somewhat decent handball or racquetball player, because even if the other guy is better than you (and almost anyone would be better than I), you might be able to simply out-athlete him. If you're in better shape and if you're quick, you might find that you can slap the ball hard enough, often enough, and quickly enough to eke out at least an occasional win. (Note: This will not work against a truly good racquetball player, but at least you'll probably avoid getting skunked. Maybe. You could always beg for mercy; once you've done it once or twice, it gets easier. Trust me, I know.)

Tennis, on the other hand,
You may be cool, but you will never
be as cool as Bill Tilden (1893 – 1953).
(Image in the public domain.)
requires serious practice before you can develop the basic skills you'll need just to keep the ball in play, never mind trying to be competitive. That's why a "tennis match" between two people who've never really learned the game quickly becomes a game of "let's hit the ball over the fence and into other people's courts and then chase it around until we get tired and then we can go have a beer." (Although that also sounds like fun.)

The key to enjoyable tennis (read: tennis that involves hitting the ball back and forth rather than over the fence and into a parking lot) is groundstrokes. You need a strong, consistent forehand and a solid backhand—those are the groundstrokes, and they’re the foundation of respectable tennis. Then you need a decent serve, which is not easy to develop. A strong, accurate overhand serve is made up of several moves, each one joined together and practiced and practiced and practiced until the whole thing becomes a seamless, smoothly choreographed ballet that ends with the server up on the toes of his left shoe (unless he's left-handed, in which case it'd be the toe of his right shoe) and a powerful downward stroke that imparts both velocity and spin to the ball and sends it careening toward your opponent. (A decent tennis player's serve could be as fast as 100 mph; some pros have been known to hit 160 mph or more. At that speed I wouldn't even be able to see the ball, but I might have a chance if I aimed my racket at the sound it made.)

To your serve and groundstrokes, add some agility and anticipation, and you have a skillset that will take a tennis player a long way. Tack on a basic understanding of strategy and court geometry, and you have what could be pretty decent tennis player—but one who will lose every match.

Why will our hypothetical player lose every match? Because, although she has some decent skills, she does not have an understanding of the rules of the game. We've taught her to hit the ball, but not when or where to hit it. She does not realize that she must serve from behind the baseline and is not allowed to step across that line until after the ball leaves the racket. (That would be a “foot fault.”) She does not know that her serve must land in the opposite forecourt. (To hit it elsewhere would be a “fault.”) She does not realize that the ball can only bounce once before she hits it, nor that she can only hit it once (no “double-taps” or “double-touches” allowed). She does not understand that when she hits the ball, it must land within the confines of the court itself, in front of the baseline and within the appropriate set of (doubles or singles) sidelines. She probably does not know that if her (first or second) serve hits the net but still lands in the appropriate forecourt, she gets to serve again, with no penalty. (That's a "let serve.") She does not understand that to fault twice (unsurprisingly, this is called a "double fault") is to lose the point. (Which wouldn't much matter to her, given that she also does not know how to keep score.)

I'm in no position to teach tennis, but I do teach writing, generally basic composition courses, and mainly to new or returning college students. (To those steeped in academe, that probably doesn't sound terribly exciting, but I must say that I enjoy it a great deal; we can't all teach Biblical Imagery in Proust or Victorian Prose & Poetry, and it's a pleasure to see students who had previously been unsuccessful in English courses discover that they actually can understand this stuff.)

You wouldn't think that someone could write an
entertaining, educational, and occasionally even
funny book about punctuation, but you would be
wrong. The title comes from, of all things, a joke
about a missing serial comma. Honestly, you
should buy this book.
I'm aware, of course, that the most important thing in a paper, essay, or article is the analysis and presentation of (and transition between) ideas and the synthesis of those ideas into something of your own. If you have no ideas or no understanding of someone else's ideas, there's no way in the world that you'll be able to craft a coherent, cohesive essay. It does no good to drill students in the intricacies of commas and semicolons if they are unable to articulate ideas—or if they simply have no ideas.

But I am after all old and curmudgeonly, so I don't like to gloss over the rules of grammar and usage. I think they're important. I'm not going to say to a student, "Oh, don't worry. It's OK that you have no idea when to capitalize or where to place a comma or how to make a subject agree with its predicate. After all, it's the ideas that are important."

Ideas are important, but as in tennis, so are those finicky little rules. It's just "custom," and customs do change, of course. But we can communicate with one another only because of those agreed-upon customs, and sometimes that stuff matters.

Take the serial comma, often called the Oxford or Harvard comma. This is the comma that, in a list of three or more items, precedes the coordinating conjunction used to connect those items. Consider the following sentence: We ate tofu, broccoli, and sauerkraut at Larry's house. (Remind me never to visit Larry at dinnertime. Remind me also to decline any offers of a sleepover.) In that sentence, "and" is the coordinating conjunction in the list, and the comma that precedes it is the serial comma.

The serial comma is sometimes considered optional, and indeed its absence often does not much matter; many sentences are perfectly clear without it. But the absence of the serial comma can occasionally lead to ambiguity, and recently that ambiguity cost a large Maine dairy company millions of dollars when a court ruled that a state law was itself ambiguous because such a comma was not present. The absence of the comma, said the Court, rendered unclear the meaning of a Maine statute relating to how overtime is calculated. In cases of ambiguity, the Court always rules in favor of the worker over the company, and thus the workers' suit prevailed, resulting in a $10 million payout to the dairy's 75 milk truck drivers. (There's a very nice write-up of the decision and its grammatical and legal ramifications in a recent issue of The New Yorker.) The absence of the comma, and the ambiguity that resulted from that absence, earned each of those drivers more than $133,000. That's a lot of money for a comma. For that much money, I would expect several commas and a semicolon, with perhaps an em dash or two thrown in for good measure.

So… As in tennis, also in writing. The rules do matter. Grammar, usage, spelling, and the rest all count because they provide clarity. Regardless of the importance of your ideas, regardless of the truth of your ideas, they will have no impact if a reader cannot make sense of the way you've presented them, simply because you've not mastered the rules that frame that presentation.

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