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Commas and the limits of discretion

There are rules in English, and there are rules that are not quite what they seem. Today we look at one of them.

Last week during Dan Rodricks’ Midday program for National Grammar Day, Margaret Benner, director of the writing support program at the English department at Towson University, objected to what she identified as an error in the first set of sample questions.

These are the sentences:

a. We should be careful in our writing, since people judge us on our grammar.

b. We should be careful in our writing, because people judge us on our grammar.

The point of the question was to get at an artificial distinction that some people make between since and because, saying that since is only permissible in temporal statements, not causal ones. Ms. Benner raised a separate point, insisting that a dependent clause that follows a main clause, as in the sentences above, must not be set off by a comma. That is an error, a violation of a rule, she said.

She commented further on this blog:

I sent an email to the WYPR broadcast yesterday about the errant comma used in the first sentence given in the grammar quiz. You answered that the comma was allowed: Some commas, you said, come under the heading of "rules" while others are "discretionary." It's true -- I'm an English teacher and probably too tied into my rule-ish-ness, but do you know how many students have argued over their right to place a comma wherever they want because "there's a pause there"? In other words, it's "discretionary." I don't want to belabor the point, but putting a comma in that first sentence in the quiz wasn't correct. It also wasn't discretionary -- or helpful to the meaning of the sentence. A discretionary comma might be used in a sentence such as the following: "Underneath, the papers were scorched." I'm not arguing against discretionary commas; I am only arguing for the valid boundaries of discretion.

I don’t want to belabor the point, either, and I certainly don’t want to accuse Ms. Benner of any kind of rule-bound rigidity. But I think that her point is about a convention, rather than a rule. Consider the advice from The Chicago Manual of Style:

Comma following a main clause. A dependent clause that follows a main clause should not be preceded by a comma if it is restrictive, that is, essential to the meaning of the main clause. If it is merely supplementary or parenthetical, it should be preceded by a comma. (Note that the distinction is occasionally tenuous; if in doubt, use a comma to indicate a pause.)

An example given: “He didn’t run, because he was afraid to move.”

When Chicago suggests that the writer can and should, in close cases, insert a comma “to indicate a pause,” the manual is endorsing the writer’s discretion. It seems to me to be more productive to consider this a convention or a guideline than a rule.

In the 18th century it was conventional to put a comma between the subject and predicate; in our time it is conventional not to do so. You can call this a rule, but it’s not quite like the rule that an appositive is set off by commas.

I think that the teaching of grammar and usage has not been well served by the multiplication of rules, some of which are actually rules, some of which are conventions, some of which are guidelines, and some of which are plainly wrong. Treating everything as a yes-or-no, right-or-wrong rule can make writing look like a mere application of a rulebook and deprive students of the flexibility of the language and the opportunity to develop taste and judgment.

A writer in English enjoys a considerable degree of discretion, particularly in the use of commas to indicate the rhythms of spoken language. If some students go overboard with this, it is a problem of stylistics, not grammar. If I choose to insert a comma in those two sample sentences to make sure that the person putting the question on the air pauses to emphasize that that is where the choice lies, I do not think that I am exceeding my authority.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:17 PM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

It is so very depressing to hear that a college writing teacher actually believes that is a "rule." I don't even think it's the preferable option; I would use the commas in both sample sentences, and I've spent my career as an editor and a student of English usage. Someone buy Ms. Benner a copy of MWDEU; maybe it's not too late for her.

Well said. I'm not sure I agree with Ms. Benner, either. Her example, "Underneath, the papers were scorched" would make even less sense without the comma.

Too many rules and wordsmiths who prefer eccentric conventions.

Bucky, I think you have just been vindicated.

Double L: I'm not sure I have, especially as to the extension of Prof. McIntyre's thoughtful moderate-prescritivistness to other punctuation marks.

But it did help pass the time over in the Sandbox and kept the discussion there from heading off in yet another "foie gras is immoral" direction.

Welcome back, Professor. We missed you last week, we surely did.

Awww, Buck! You were passing time? I thought you were stirring the pot!

One of the points I don't hear mentioned often in these discussions (at least explicitly) is that the function of the written word is to communicate speech when aural communication is impossible—i.e., over time or distance. Extracting a sentence from its context and performing a punctuectomy on it because a comma isn't "necessary" says the medium is more important than the message.

But a comma changes the inflection of a sentence as much as (perhaps more than) it indicates syntactical relationships to the reader (at least consciously). That "discretionary" comma shifts the weight of words in the reader's "ear," thus:

Q: What was the point of that lengthy lecture on grammar rules?
A: We should be careful in our writing, because people judge us on our grammar.
[emphases on "careful," "judge"]

Q: Why should we be careful in our writing?
A: We should be careful in our writing because people judge us on our grammar.
[emphases on "judge," "grammar"]

Which answer is wrong? Neither, of course--and heaven help us when the "rules" keep us from communicating well.

Soapbox dismounted. :-)

I have a question pertaining to commas; perhaps someone will kindly furnish an answer.
Does causality between clauses in a compound sentence eliminate the need for a comma? "He pushed me against the table and the lamp fell to the floor."

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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