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Why commas matter

Writing on fact-checking in the current number of The New Yorker, John McPhee describes a small but important point in a long article about the American shad, which he later reworked into The Founding Fish. This is the passage that poses the question:

Penn's daughter Margaret fished in the Delaware, and wrote home to a brother asking him to "buy for me a four joynted, strong fishing Rod and Real with strong good Lines …"

Anything occur to you in reading it?

This is what occurred to McPhee:

The problem was not with the rod or the real but with William Penn's offspring. Should there be commas around Margaret or no commas around Margaret? The presence of absence of commas would, in effect, say whether Penn had one daughter or more than one. The commas—there or missing there—were not just commas; they were facts. ...

Some commas are discretionary, and writers use them to suggest the pauses that occur in spoken language. Some are required to set off discrete syntactical units, such as appositives and nonrestrictive subordinate clauses, so that the reader can sail through the sentence without having to tack and return to the beginning.

Without the commas, McPhee’s reader could infer that Penn had two or more daughters, with Margaret singled out in this case. With commas, the reader could infer that Penn had one daughter, with her name supplied as additional information. (The passage appears in McPhee’s book without commas.)

McPhee leans on the fact-checkers at The New Yorker. He confesses that he writes sentences with arbitrary information, secure in the knowledge that the scrupulous fact-checking will put him right. (I’ve known newspaper reporters of this stripe.) But after The New Yorker turned down the original article and McPhee was reworking it into the book, he was on his own:

So I checked the virginal parts of the book myself, risking analogy with the attorney who defends himself and has a fool for a client. The task took me three months—trying to retrace the facts in the manuscript by as many alternate routes as I could think of, as fact-checkers routinely do.

Newspapers, sadly, lack the time and resources to do the level of fact-checking practiced at The New Yorker. The copy desk does what it can.

But what I would like the writers among you to take away from this post is a little oft-repeated homily: You are not necessarily the best judge of your own work. You need an editor to catch the things you do not notice yourself and raise the questions that you have not asked. If you are publishing solo, you are working without a net.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:59 AM | | Comments (10)


In regard to the commas, this is restrictive versus nonrestrictive, right?

Yes, commas or the absence of commas will signal to the reader whether a phrase or clause is restrictive or nonrestrictive.

In the McPhee sentence, the absence of commas yields a restrictive sense, "daughter Margaret" indicating that this daughter named Margaret is signled out as one of a number. With commas, "Margaret" would be nonrestrictive, merely an appositive, a piece of parenthetical additional information. .

"He confesses that he writes sentences with arbitrary information, secure in the knowledge that the scrupulous fact-checking will put him right."

This makes me CRAZY! When you are the writer, you are the one closest to the information in the FIRST place. He's writing about Penn's family, and the daughter. Doesn't he KNOW if she had any sisters? If not, why not? If he did thorough research, wouldn't he know?

This reminds me of the story a colleague used to tell of the person who wrote a story about some Russia-related thing for New York magazine, and turned in copy that read: "There are TK-thousand trees in Moscow."

If you think it's important, look it up.

Frankly, I'm expecting magazines to cut way back on their fact-checking, and to simply focus on anything that might be legally problematic. So writers had better start being more proactive and responsible about what they put in their stories.

It's too much work for you to look it up? Don't write it.

When I was in college, I wasn't taught that there was such a thing as a fact-checker. The reporter was the person responsible for making their story factually correct.

Regarding that use of commas:
There is a movement (somewhere; haven't heard much about it lately) to eliminate the comma in such a usage, and to treat "sister" or "husband" (etc.) as simple descriptors, much like "editor" or "style maven," which go in front with no comma ("as copyeditor John McIntyre says,")

I have some sympathy with that. For the sense of understanding that sentence, does it *matter* whether Margaret had a sister or not?

But that's probably mostly laziness.

How do you feel about AP's command to use commas in John McIntyre, of Baltimore, instead of the much-easier-to-read-in-a-caption John McIntire of Baltimore?

I've edited with both preferences without losing much sleep over either. There is no grammatical reason to set off the prepositional phrase with commas, but I can uderstand the impulse not to make the place name look like part of the person's name. If I am John McIntyre, of Baltimore, I feel a little less like Charles Carroll of Carrolton.

"Without the commas, McPhee’s reader could infer that Penn had two or more daughters, with Margaret singled out in this case. With commas, the reader could infer that Penn had one daughter, with her name supplied as additional information. (The passage appears in McPhee’s book without commas.) "

Wow, I must have missed that day in comma school. I would swear I've never heard that concept before. It makes sense, though, when I think about it.

The commas that bug me most are the ones I think of as "audible commas," that is, they represent a pause in a hypothetical speaker's speech without being integral to the sentence's structure.

Perhaps they result from teachers helpfully suggesting that one put a comma where you'd pause when speaking.

These often end up mimicking unmatched commas, e.g., "John Smith of Bank of America, said in a news conference he called today, that they're doing great."

The McPhee article has also generated some interesting exchanges in the comments on this Language Log post:

Maybe the readers don’t care where the commas go, but the lawyers sure do. Check this:

Excerpts below are all from this source.

“It could be the most costly piece of punctuation in Canada.
A grammatical blunder may force Rogers Communications Inc. to pay an extra $2.13-million to use utility poles in the Maritimes after the placement of a comma in a contract permitted the deal's cancellation.
Language buffs take note — Page 7 of the contract states: The agreement “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”
Rogers' intent in 2002 was to lock into a long-term deal of at least five years. But when regulators with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) parsed the wording, they reached another conclusion.
The validity of the contract and the millions of dollars at stake all came down to one point — the second comma in the sentence.
“This is a classic case of where the placement of a comma has great importance,” Aliant said.

I use this case as a cautionary tale with my students. Especially when they say "who cares about punctuation? Everybody knows what you mean!"

One wonders about the comma in this phrase:

four joynted, strong fishing Rod

Is it a strong fishing rod that is four jointed or is it a four jointed and strong fishing rod, the latter needing a comma when and is dropped. And while we're at it, doesn't four jointed need a hyphen because it's a compound modifier?

Regarding not being the best judge of my work and needing an editor, my Darling Wife always seems to find the errors in things that I have written, read, and reread. Another reason I cherish her.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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