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Grammarnoir: The complete serial

By request, the four parts of the serial listed for the reader's convenience:

Down those mean sentences I walk alone

"What are we going to do now?" she asked

The Fat Man chuckles

The rule you don't break



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:22 PM | | Comments (8)


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 certainly enjoyed the show.

Here is that first set of sentences from yesterday's program:

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.

All right, you lot, what say you? Did I trespass the valid boundaries of discretion by inserting those commas?

I'd have left it out, especially if I were trying to make adolescents understand the pattern of comma use.

(I used to work with a woman whose grammar and punctuation were very good. When in doubt, she was my go-to chick. One day I realized that her emails and memos had gradually just begun to have commas all over the place! When I asked her - gently, she still being the better punctuationist than I - what was up, she reminded me about the deiscretionary comma rule, that applies to pauses. Turned out, she had coronary blockage and was more panting than breathing. Her commas diminished considerably after her surgery.)

Mr. McIntyre, I recently came across the following sentence, which would seem to support your view:
"This was odd, because I distinctly remembered having bought peanut butter a couple of weeks ago, making sure we had the kind that wouldn't kill us."

Oh no! Or...uh...Oh, no! Don't you do this, Laura Lee. You're just trying to start something up.

Bucky, I don't think there is any starting. We're already round the first turn, and we know what Laura Lee is like.

I would put in the commas. But, I'm dyslexic and sub-verbalise (sort like hearing voices in my brain, but not funny voices) what I read: the commas help create the sound of conversation.

These commas seem right to me. They remove any possible confusion about what is coming next. Without the commas, the reader might be expecting something like these:

"We should be careful in our writing since [the 9/11 attacks], for they might be monitored."

"We should be careful in our writing because [we love to write], for it might be judged by people who would hurt our feelings if it does not meet some objective standard."

Wow, Maurice, you place a heavy burden on those poor commas.

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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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