I Spent All Morning Taking Out a Comma and All Afternoon Putting It Back

Oscar Wilde? Gustave Flaubert? Robert H. Sherard? Apocryphal?

comma07Dear Quote Investigator: A famous writer who was punctilious about punctuation described an arduous day of work as follows:

I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.

In some versions of the anecdote the operations were reversed:

I spent all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back in again.

This humorous remark has been attributed to the wit Oscar Wilde and the French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Would you please determine the correct ascription?

Quote Investigator: Currently, there is no substantive evidence that Gustave Flaubert made this remark. He died in 1880, and the first linkage of the tale to him that QI has located was published in 1919. Details are given further below.

The earliest instance of this anecdote known to QI appeared on May 8, 1884 in “The Daily Graphic: An Illustrated Evening Newspaper” of New York City under the title “The Casual Observer”. The story was quickly reprinted in several other newspapers including “The Syracuse Standard” of New York under the title “Oscar’s Morning Work”, and “The Boston Sunday Globe” of Massachusetts under the title “A Fateful Comma”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2 3

Oscar Wilde, among his various stories told here of which he was always the aesthetic hero, related that once while on a visit to an English country house he was much annoyed by the pronounced Philistinism of a certain fellow guest, who loudly stated that all artistic employment was a melancholy waste of time.

“Well, Mr. Wilde,” said Oscar’s bugbear one day at lunch, “and pray how have you been passing your morning?” “Oh! I have been immensely busy,” said Oscar with great gravity. “I have spent my whole time over the proof sheets of my book of poems.” The Philistine with a growl inquired the result of that.

“Well, it was very important,” said Oscar. “I took out a comma.” “Indeed,” returned the enemy of literature, “is that all you did?” Oscar, with a sweet smile, said, “By no means; on mature reflection I put back the comma.” This was too much for the Philistine, who took the next train to London.

Many thanks to scholar John Cooper who for three decades has been studying Oscar Wilde with particular emphasis on Wilde’s excursions in the United States. Cooper identified the widely-reprinted story given above, and found the earliest citation. 4

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and in 1902 one of his friends named Robert H. Sherard released a privately printed volume titled “Oscar Wilde: The Story of an Unhappy Friendship”. A few years later in 1905 the book was publicly released, and in later years Sherard published other biographical works about Wilde. Sherard recounted the comma story, and the context suggested that Sherard heard the tale directly from Wilde: 5

And he related also, with much gusto, how in a country-house he had told his host one evening that he had spent the day in hard literary work, and that, when asked what he had done, he had said, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma.” “And in the afternoon?” “In the afternoon–well, I put it back again.”

In 1905 “The Bookseller” magazine printed a review of Sherard’s book, and the anecdote of aesthetic vacillation was found compelling enough to share with readers: 6

There is method in such madness as this and in his bravado, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma. In the afternoon—well, I put it back again.”

In 1906 Sherard published “The Life of Oscar Wilde”, and he included another instance of the anecdote which employed slightly different phrasing: 7

One of his stories was that his hostess in a country house having asked him at dinner how he had spent the day he had answered: “I have been correcting the proofs of my poems. In the morning, after hard work, I took a comma out of one sentence.” “And in the afternoon?” “In the afternoon, I put it back again.” He was here jesting at what was a marked characteristic of his literary technique.

In 1919 a student journal called “The Yale Literary Magazine” published an essay titled “How Write?” by Harold L. Stark. A version of the comma story was included with two modifications. First, the actions performed were reversed, i.e., the comma was added and then removed. Second, Gustave Flaubert was the main actor instead of Oscar Wilde. 8

To exhaust the day and part of the night, perhaps, as Flaubert, finishing a page or putting in a comma, and taking it out again, is not the way of twenty.

The story continued to circulate in 1923 when several newspapers printed a version in which both participants were unnamed: 9

“English novelists are effete. They go in too much for style. There’s a lack of red blood in their work.
“At a dinner in a country inn where we were staying together, I said one evening to an English novelist:
“‘Well, I dashed off 8,000 words today. What did you do?’
“‘Oh, I was immensely busy,’ said he. ‘I corrected the proofs of my new essay.’
“‘Make any changes?’ I asked.
“‘I made one very important change,’ he said. ‘I took out a comma.’
“I couldn’t help giving a disgusted laugh.
“‘And is that all you did all day,’ I said—’take out a comma?’
“‘Oh, no,’ said he. ‘After deep reflection I put the comma back.'”

In 1926 Richard Le Gallienne included a concise version of the statement attributed to Wilde in his book “The Romantic ’90s”: 10

. . . a perfect sentence or two was sometimes a good morning’s work; which recalls Wilde’s jest about a hard day’s work: “This morning,” he said, “I took out a comma, and this afternoon—I put it in again.”

In 1968 Isabelle Ziegler published a book about creative writing, and she included a version of the tale featuring Flaubert although she warned readers that it was apocryphal: 11

Flaubert needed seven years to write Madame Bovary. It is said of him—apocryphally, as of other writers—that he spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon taking it out.

In 1969 a staff member of the editorial page of “The Washington Post” named Colman McCarthy published an essay about creative writing and included an instance of the Wilde tale. He also wrote about Flaubert: 12

No one ever spent a harder day’s work than Oscar Wilde when he came from his room beat and sweaty, saying, “I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.”

Flaubert had the same agony. “I have just spent a good week,” he wrote to a friend midway in “Madame Bovary,” “alone like a hermit and calm as a god. I abandoned myself to a frenzy of literature. I got up at midday, I went to bed at four in the morning; I have written eight pages.”

Quotation expert Ralph Keyes placed this story into his reference work “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde”, and he pointed to the works of Sherard given previously in this article. 13

In conclusion, based on the 1884 citations and the works by Sherard, QI believes that Oscar Wilde did tell this anecdote. He may have employed poetic license to craft a version that listeners would find entertaining. The linkage of the story to Gustave Flaubert appears to be spurious.

Image Notes: Picture of a comma. Cropped portrait of Oscar Wilde from1906 book “The Life of Oscar Wilde” by Robert Harborough Sherard.

(Great thanks to Benjamin Dreyer, Henry Fuhrmann, Mededitor, and Aden Nichols whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to John Cooper for his valuable research on this topic. Kudos to him for locating the May 8, 1884 citation.)

Update History: On January 1, 2015 the citation dated May 8, 1884 in “The Daily Graphic: An Illustrated Evening Newspaper” was added to the article.

Notes:

  1. 1884 May 8, The Daily Graphic (New York Graphic), The Casual Observer, Quote Page 506, Column 2, (Page 2 of May 8 Issue), New York, New York. (Old Fulton; Located by John Cooper)
  2. 1884 May 21, The Syracuse Standard, Oscar’s Morning Work (Acknowledgement to “New York Graphic”), Quote Page 2, Column 5, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1884 May 25, The Boston Sunday Globe (Sunday Morning), A Fateful Comma (Acknowledgement to “New York Graphic”), Quote Page 9, Column 6, Boston, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. Website: Oscar Wilde in America, Article title: “QUOTATION: In the morning I took out a comma, but on mature reflection, I put it back again”, Author: John Cooper, Date on website: No date given, Website description: Information about Oscar Wilde’s visits to the United States assembled by John Cooper. (Accessed oscarwildeinamerica.org on October 25, 2015 and on January 1, 2015)link
  5. 1905, Oscar Wilde: The Story of an Unhappy Friendship by Robert H. Sherard (Robert Harborough Sherard), Quote Page 72, Greening & Company, Limited, London. (Original edition was privately printed; the author’s note from Robert Sherard was dated August 7, 1902)(Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1905 May 9, The Bookseller, Short Notices, (Book Review of Robert H. Sherard’s “Oscar Wilde: The Story of an Unhappy Friendship”), Quote Page 414, Column 1, Published at The Office of The Bookseller, Warwick Lane, Paternoster Row, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1906, The Life of Oscar Wilde by Robert Harborough Sherard, Quote Page 273, Mitchell Kennerley, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1919 October, The Yale Literary Magazine, Conducted by the Students of Yale University, Volume 85, Number 1, How Write? – An Essay by Harold L. Stark, Start Page 32, Quote Page 33, Published by the Editors, Printed by Van Dyck & Company, New Haven, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1923 March 29, Shiner Gazette, Surely Had a Busy Day, Quote Page 7, Column 6, Shiner, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1951, The Romantic ’90s by Richard Le Gallienne, Quote Page 137, Published by Putnam & Company, London.(First published 1926; new edition 1951)(Verified on paper in 1951 edition; match exists in 1926 edition in Questia database)
  11. 1975, The Creative Writer’s Handbook: What to Write, How to Write It, Where to Sell It by Isabelle Ziegler (Second edition), Chapter 11: Style, Quote Page 91 and 92, Barnes & Noble Books: A Division of Harper & Row, New York. (First edition published in 1968 with the title “Creative writing”)(Verified with scans in 1975 edition; match exists in 1968 edition in Google Books database though only snippets are visible)
  12. 1969 September 29, The Washington Post, Writing: A Matter of Commas, Blank Pages and Limpsby Colman McCarthy, Quote Page A22, Column 3 and 4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  13. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, Section: The Anecdotal Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 33 and 168, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)