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Punctuational polygamy

In the copy I edit I am frequently coming across constructions like his wife Gertrude.*

Let’s think this through.

If Gertrude were a daughter and the construction were his daughter Gertrude, we could infer that the man has more than one daughter and we are singling out the one named Gertrude. If the construction were his daughter, Gertrude, we could infer that the man has one daughter, whose name we are supplying parenthetically.

Now, what can we infer from his wife Gertrude? (1) He has more than one wife, and we are focusing on the one named Gertrude, or (2) Our writer has a cloudy understanding of what commas are for.

 

*If you think that the sentence should have read such as rather than like, you are mistaken, but we’ll take that up another time.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 AM | | Comments (19)
        

Comments

Or, (3), the writer is confident in the reader's cultural understanding that there's only one wife, and will only be one wife unless the subject of the article is a fundamentalist Mormon or a character on "Big Love," or that the reader will never recognize what the comma signals in this construction.

Note: Much as I'm on your side in this issue -- or at least the side of logic and conformity to grammar rules -- there is a rebellious part of me that wonders how much this really matters.

But what do you make of a usage like this:

"A concert featuring the great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti."

The meaning seems completely unambiguous to me, with only one wife and only one child implied in either case. Could be one child, could be many; it doesn't say.

Further, the comma seems misplaced and even wrong to me. It looks like you meant to write "My wife, Gertrude, who does this thing with her ankles ..." but accidentally interrupted the sentence with a full stop instead of the second comma.

It looks strange enough to me that I'll just continue to go with my intuition here until or unless somebody forcibly changes my text out of my control.

I remember when my the professor of my basic copy editing class made this same point, and isn't it so funny that the author unintentionally implied that he has multiple wives?

Well, no, I thought, it isn't funny, because the reader has to deliberately create the misreading.

So I think I must politely disagree, Mr. McIntyre, and instead agree with the others commenters—I think there is a very small chance for any real confusion about the number of wives he has. And I think the reasoning here is somewhat akin to that used by only fetishists—a strict, decontextualized reading of the text produces ambiguity, so it's an error that must be fixed.

It was quite surprising to know there are people who might question the usage of the comma in such a construction.

How would you feel about Gertrude, his beloved wife?

If you start justifying based on the reason that you understand what the author is trying to convey, probably you will allow "They is not students" because you certainly know the author meant "are" but somehow wrote "is" and you understand what the sentence conveys.

Or, (3) the text has been edited by Word, which is apparently the case in most books. The misused-but-closely-spelled-words and lowst-common-denominator grammar make many mysteries, at least, appear to have left the publisher without Human Editor Eyes having seen the final copy.

*If you think that the sentence should have read such as rather than like, you are mistaken, but we’ll take that up another time.

OK, but be aware that I have a lot to say about this!

>" the text has been edited by Word"

Text isn't edited by Word, which is just a tool. Do not blame tools for the errors of humans. The car didn't crash; the driver did.

>"which is apparently the case in most books"

Most books? I call hyperbole.

It would be correct to write "the wife Gertrude," or "his wife, Gertrude." When I try to explain why the comma should be avoided in the one case but is necesary in the other, my mind is assailed by exceptions.

I have to cast my lot with Bill Peschel, Janne and Jonathon on this one. With all due respect, I find the comma superfluous and fussy.

I was about to post that The (London) Times doesn't bother about this distinction, and that instead there's a blanket requirement that there should always be encasing commas.

But by an amazing coincidence I was told yesterday that I couldn't have 'the Lancashire cycling expert, Joe Bloggs' because there's only one such individual.

The problem with this distinction is that even the most literate of readers don't recognise it. After more than a decade of subbing on UK national newspapers, I only learned about it yesterday.

So no one except a serious maven would make deductions about the number of daughters a man has based on a comma or two. And even the maven wouldn't be justified in his deduction: how could he be certain that the publication recognised the distinction?

I can see that the scrupulous editor might fret about this, and even feel a satisfaction about getting it right, but...

Hmm. Re-reading John's post I see that I'm /still/ getting this wrong. Or did my boss at The Times make a mistake?

Or is the whole thing a kind of grammatical dog whistle imperceptible to almost everyone?

Sid Smith writes: "The problem with this distinction is that even the most literate of readers don't recognise it." Wow! I must be among the ultra-most super-literate of readers, then, because I've recognized this distinction since approximately the ninth grade.

I'm both amused and saddened by Jonathan and especially Janne, who seem to be saying "If the comma creates a distinction, it's 'unintuitive' to me, I think I already know all rules worth knowing, I'm unwilling to accept any further nuance of how to treat language, and I want to deprive my readers of the benefits that others enjoy through the use of this comma."

Editing -- and life as a whole, I believe -- is about paying attention. If people had been paying attention all these years, they would have noticed that, yes, many writers do use commas in this way, and sometimes the commas make a big difference. Maybe they read only lazy writers.

Pardon me. English isn't my first language, and the grammar I've learned has been through bilingual schooling and personal interest.

I'm actually confused about the "such as" vs "like" dilemma. I think that by "like" what is meant is "similar to" and "such as" would refer to "the wife" as the specific example.

I'm still confused, so could someone please address the issue?

Pardon me. English isn't my first language, and the grammar I've learned has been through bilingual schooling and personal interest.

I'm actually confused about the "such as" vs "like" dilemma. I think that by "like" what is meant is "similar to" and "such as" would refer to "the wife" as the specific example.

I'm still confused, so could someone please address the issue?

How about "Gertrude, his wife....." and get on with it?

I've since pointed my boss at The Times, Grahame Painting, at this page. In the middle of a busy shift he dashed off some comments as follows. (He asked me to take out the blunter remarks, but I've ignored him on the ground that it would be less fun. Anyway, there're not really blunt.):

1. John E. McIntyre is right.
2. "Gertrude, his beloved wife" is correct.
3. "The meaning seems completely unambiguous to me, with only one wife and only one child implied in either case. Could be one child, could be many; it doesn't say." This is completely wrong and this person should not be a copy editor if this is her level of understanding.
4. "A concert featuring the great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti" is wrong.
There have been many more than one great tenor, though Pavarotti is acknowledged as one of the greatest. "A concert featuring the great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti" would be correct in a different sense because emphasising "the" implies that Pavarotti is the greatest of all tenors.
5. "I remember when the professor of my basic copy editing class made this same point, and isn't it so funny that the author unintentionally implied that he has multiple wives? Well, no, I thought, it isn't funny, because the reader has to deliberately create the misreading."
This is just silly. Plenty of men get divorced and have more than one wife, so using commas to make that clear is eminently sensible.
6. "With all due respect, I find the comma superfluous and fussy." This bloke is wrong, but at least he's respectful.

Our host John McIntyre has often enough railed against zombie editors who are slaves to the "rules" in some undead stylebook. So I am disappointed to see him parroting just such a rule.

In "my daughter, Gertrude, . . ." the name is, indeed, parenthetical by definition -- that's what the commas are for -- but there can be no valid inference that the speaker has only one daughter. We know only that he considers the name parenthetical for some reason, perhaps that she is going to Yale in the fall, his other daughters are all still in elementary school, and he knows the person to whom he is speaking knows that (but may not recall the name of the eldest).

If instead he says "my daughter Gertrude," it may be that he has more than one daughter, but all we can infer is that he is singling out one member of the class of his daughters. The phrase makes no grammatical claims about how many members are in the class.

Consequently, there is nothing grammatically wrong with "my wife Gertrude." The words denote exactly the same person with or without the paired commas, and the choice between them is therefore based on other considerations.

When I was writing columns, some of them were about personal or family matters, and so on occasion I wrote about "my son Peter . . .." I wrote it that way because I knew I would be referring to him in later paragraphs, and I didn't want to make readers guess who this person named Peter was. Over 15 years, I wrote that some 20 or more times, and none of my very meticulous editors changed it or even suggested that I should. Though he is my only child, I wrote his name separated by commas exactly once, when he was one of several people named in the column.

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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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