Life Without Commas

Johnny Got His Gun. Dalton Trumbo (1939)

Can you imagine being Johnny, aware of your thoughts but locked in a dysfunctional body? You do not have arms, legs, sight, speech, or hearing. You do have an awareness of presence, and you have a memory, but you are trapped. You are aware of people caring for you, yet you cannot respond in any way…not even with grunts or movements. You feel like you have swallowed dynamite[1] but then again, it might be a hangover.

You sift through your memories to understand, and you remember leaving loved ones behind. You recall the hype of the beginning of a war. You have a flood of recollections from your short lifetime, you are very young. You are one of hundreds of thousands of casualties of WWI and you are trapped in a defunct body in an institution somewhere…you don’t know where, and your caregivers don’t know your name. Would your thoughts require pauses and breathes? Would it matter a damn if you included commas in your narrative? Not likely.

I was reading this book at the fast pace the flooding thoughts of the protagonist were jumping at me from the pages, and it struck me that there were no commas. I thought it was a mistake and so I reviewed the pages again and realized there were absolutely no comas.  How could a prolific screenplay writer and award-winning novelist “forget” about comma usage? As I continued to read on, I understood. As a young victim of war, “Johnny” was the amputee poster child for the anti-war movements; and the book—representative of the devastation war brings. The book, written about WWI, served as a controversial testimony during WWII, the war in Vietnam, and the Korean war.

This narrative without commas far better describes to the audience the agony Johnny is experiencing (but cannot speak to) as a victim of war. It is almost as if there were no breath, no pause…only thoughts constantly rolling around in the mind of a young victim of war.

My son-in-law found Johnny Got His Gun in a used book store in Seattle.  The author, Dalton Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten (film writers blacklisted during the McCarthy era). The book, described as a “great anti-war novel” [2], was first published in 1939. Trumbo was blacklisted from 1947 to 1960 for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee (he was jailed). Although Trumbo denies being informed that his book was suppressed, many others believed it went out of print during WWII and the Vietnam war because of the controversial content.

The history of the comma dates to third century BC. Aristophanes of Byzantium invented a system of dots to separate verses and indicate how much breath is needed to complete a sentence when reading out loud. [3] Discussions about the usage of commas reach the highest level in the “Oxford Comma Wars”.[4]  Personally, I always thought it was rather petty to discuss such trivia but seemingly it is not.

Artists and writers deviate from rules and regulations to freely express themselves. As a student of editing, I am learning that there is a very fine line between artistic expression and regulation. I edited a children’s novel and suggested to the author the insertion of commas at appropriate places. She absolutely reacted…negatively. She did not want commas in her book and while I didn’t agree with her, it was her call…it was her creation.


1 Trumbo, Dalton.1970. Johnny Got His Gun. Bantam Books. New York, pg.3

2 (Trumbo 1970, i

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristophanes_of_Byzantium

4 The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars. (n.d.).  Retrieved 10 16, 2018, from http://mentalfloss.com/article/33637/best-shots-fired-oxford-comma-wars

Editors’ Association of Canada / Association canadienne des réviseurs

Celebrating 40 years of editorial excellence / Célébrons 40 ans d’excellence en révision  

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