The Comma

Originally appeared in the January 1998 issue of the ABA Journal.

Harmless Error - A Truly Minority View on the Law

The Comma

BY ANDREW J. McCLURG

Many years ago, on a hot desert night near Roswell, New Mexico, a world-altering event occurred. Four superior beings from a far away place came together and forever changed the fate of millions of innocent lawyers.

That’s right. I’m talking about the night the Ivy League Committee on Uniform Citation met to create Rule 15.2 of The Bluebook, which mandates in profound language: “If the title of a work ends with a date, the page number must be set off by a comma.”

A transcript of that clandestine meeting recently surfaced in a footnote under suspicious circumstances. In an ABA Journal exclusive, here is the true story of Rule 15.2 and its infamous comma. The meeting opened with Editor-In-Chief Irving Frunk explaining the merits of his proposal to the other editors:

Irving: We need that #*%##&* comma! Rule 15.2 means nothing without The Comma. I’ll gladly die for it.

Frieda: Accord.

Dan: Accord.

Wendy: Contra. Put down the gun, Irving.

Irving: Okay, but I want proof of everyone’s commitment to The Comma. I’ve decided to quit law school and become addicted to amphetamines so I can contemplate the comma twenty-four hours a day.

Dan: I’m going to have Rule 15.2 tattooed on my buttocks, right under the rules for Separately Bound Legislative Histories.

Frieda: I’ll cut out my husband’s entrails and form them into the shape of one huge comma.

Irving: What about you Wendy?

Wendy: I have to take care of my sick parents.

Irving: Doesn’t the comma mean anything to you?

Wendy: Alright, I’ll put them in a nursing home.

Irving: Fantastic. We’re all behind The Comma. But before we can officially adopt it, we’re obligated under our Non-Discrimination Policy to give equal consideration to the period, exclamation point and question mark.

Wendy: What about umlauts? They’ve never gotten a fair shake. We don’t have a single umlaut in the entire Bluebook. It might be a nice change.

Frieda: That’s sick. Shoot her, Irving. She doesn’t love the comma like the rest of us. We don’t need change. We need The Comma. The comma is the only possible answer. And to give it dignity, we must enshrine it in parentheses.

Dan: I have an even better idea. Let’s put a hundred commas in a row! Look at this.

(Dan distributes the following draft of his proposal:)

,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Dan: Isn’t it glorious? Think of the symbolism. Commas giving birth to commas, bursting onto the next page, into the next generation and beyond. Let’s make it a thousand. Ten thousand! Commas for infinity. Commas for …

Irving: Easy, Dan. Slow down. First we need to get everyone obsessing about The Comma, then we’ll be free to do as we please. It’s been a long night. We need food and rest. We’ll reconvene at sunrise to draft a preamble to the comma. Let’s close with our traditional blessing. Place your hands on The Bluebook. Thank you for 365 pages of stability and truth. And thank you for The Comma. Amen.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. All characters and punctuation described herein are either invented or used fictitiously, except of course for The Comma, which is all too real.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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