Oscar Wilde? Gustave Flaubert? Robert H. Sherard? Apocryphal?
Dear 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”, 1 and “The Boston Sunday Globe” of Massachusetts under the title “A Fateful Comma”. 2 Boldface has been added to excerpts: 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.
- 1884 May 21, The Syracuse Standard, Oscar’s Morning Work (Acknowledgement to “New York Graphic”), Quote Page 2, Column 5, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 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) ↩
- 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) ↩
- 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 ↩