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Commas, and what you should know about them

It’s National Punctuation Day tomorrow. Please contain your excitement.

I wrote about it in 2008 and in 2009, apparently skipping it last year. Since one of Professor Stacy Spaulding’s new media students at Towson University asked me about serial commas during a seance I conducted yesterday, I thought it would be good to honor the day this year with some remarks on the humble comma.

There are constructions in which the comma is simply required. For example: You set off appositives with commas: McIntyre, an editor, has seen it all. You set off non-restrictive/non-limiting/non-essential phrases and clauses with commas. McIntyre, who has been a working editor for three decades, has seen it all. You use commas to separate items in a simple series: McIntyre is an editor, an adjunct faculty member, and a common scold.* (For a complex series, having commas within the elements, you set off each element with a semicolon.) Though you might safely omit it with short compound sentences (independent clauses joined by and, but, or or), it should be there in longer ones: McIntyre goes through this with his students at the beginning of every semester, and he is relentless about it to the end of the term.

But the comma may also be used in places where it is not grammatically required. Writers of fiction in particular use it to indicate the pauses in speech. It may also be freely used to indicate emphasis, with less intensity than a dash. And the preceding sentence is an example of that use.

For another example of discretionary use, have a look at the post about a minor dust-up I had with a Towson University instructor after talking on Dan Rodricks’s radio show on National Grammar Day in 2009. Fortunately, the astute Jan Freeman had my back in the comments.

You do not want to become comma-happy, or dash-happy, or (however unlikely) semicolon-happy. You don’t want to overuse any device. Also, you need to have some idea of why you are using punctuation, rather than sprinkling it all over the text as if you were a waiter with a pepper mill. Know your tools, and respect them.

 

*I implore you not to hyperventilate over the final comma in a series, the serial comma or Oxford comma. Use it or not, as it suits you. But even the Associated Press Stylebook, which ordinarily dispenses with the final comma in a series, says there is nothing wrong with using it to avoid confusion.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:28 AM | | Comments (24)
        

Comments

Judith Taylor Hefley McFadden comments on Facebook: "I notice that the comma after an opening independent clause is not mentioned--and I see that comma diminishing in use in my reading, along with commas after many introductory phrases. As a recovering prescriptivist, what do you advise? After reading some sentences, I find I have to go back and put in a virtual comma."

Anyone care to chime in?

When revising my own prose, even for an email, what I have to fight off is a tendency to write a single long, complex sentence, riddled with colons, semicolons, dashes, parentheses (or marks of parenthesis, as Strunk calls them), and commas of every description, conforming quite precisely to the rules of formal written English grammar and punctuation, but unless broken up by the effort of revision producing an endless stream of material which leaves the reader gasping and breathless when the end is finally reached, much like trying to tow an ocean liner into port -- by hand.

John Cowan: Hold on, I'm ... [gasp, struggling to breathe] ... if you can just ... [gaaaaasp] ... one [gasp] moment, I'll be right [gasp] with you ...

...

Tim

You advise against becoming semicolon-happy. That's funny advice. Still, I'm fond of using semicolons. Using them makes me feel smart in a way that using dashes, colons, commas and periods simply can't. Call it a semicolon high.

Whew, well that worked for me, John Cowan. You busy later?

John Cowan,

I loved your very appropriate, and descriptive closing analogy of towing an ocean liner into port----by hand, no less, in describing the heavy slog for most readers in navigating those seemingly unending run-on sentences.

Couldn't help but conjure up that memorable B&W film footage of the late, great physical fitness pioneer/ guru, Jack Lalane, who in his younger days, pulled, (by rope), a monstrous multi-ton ocean craft for a considerable distance off the L.A. coastline. But I digress.

John, of the regular bloggers on this site, I'm admittedly one of the most guilty of penning those tedious, seemingly interminable, run-on sentences------ interconnected by sundry commas, dashes, colons, semicolons, parentheses, and ending up looking like a haphazardly stitched-up hodge-podge of words and phrases--- ever lost in translation.

I realize that these seemingly endless sentences generally turn off, or mentally exhaust the average reader, but for some reason the annoying habit sadly persists.

At least I'm well aware of this 'failing', and am trying to simplify and shorten my prose, but I'm afeared old habits die hard.

John, in the main, I find your posts very readable, w/ good flow, and chock full of valuable information and keen insight. I can tolerate your somewhat prescriptivist bent. HA!

Oh, very clever, indeed, w/ your most recent post, where you've actually given us a prime example of the very writing fault, or "tendency', you are attempting to remedy. Priceless.

ALEX

Laura Lee: Any time you say. I'm sure you're one of those women who appreciate a light touch on the keyboard; perhaps with a slightly irregular rhythm?

Tim: You sound like a man with interesting tastes. Perhaps you, I, and Laura could have a three-way (conversation, of course) sometime.

Alex: "Prescriptivist?" Moi? But anyway, if you enjoyed that, check out Joel Stickley's blog "How To Write Badly Well" at http://writebadlywell.blogspot.com . Joel hasn't been posting much recently, but the material is truly timeless. Here's a sample, his short January 2010 piece entitled "Coin baffling aphorisms":

More than anything, I remember the smell of the streets back then – a brackish funk my mother used to call the “potato waltz.” She was full of pithy phrases like that, with one for every occasion. Mealtimes were “dingo rose gardens,” holes in our socks were “delving bolsheviks” and if one of us kids came home with a cut or bruise we couldn’t hide, she would tell us: “there’s no leaf falls as fast as Princess Mulch, and none so riverish as Spanish Dan.” We took that kind of thing to heart – it didn’t put us off fighting, but it sure as hell made us want to win.

If I’m honest as a shoe can be, I think some of my mother’s way of talking – the way they all talked in the old country, I suppose – rubbed off on me like mustard on a Major. To this day, I still call bullfrogs “purple postmen” and scissors “papier-mâché Art Garfunkels.” I still greet people by asking how their cousins are spinning and if anyone crosses me, they can expect an outburst of shuffling autocratic seedbeds and flamingo dovetails. It’s just my way, I guess. Like they say, to each according to his own and to all a good night.

Well now you're speaking my language John Cowan. btw, you are on this side of the pond, aren't you? I'd hate to think of you dragging that ocean liner all the way across the Atlantic.

Anyway, Tim seems like a man who's game for anything, and I think you'd best bring Joel Stickley along too; I could listen to a guy who talks that way all night. Lucky him, growing up with a mother who channels James Joyce.

Alex, if you really do want to shorten and simplify your prose, perhaps you might try your hand at Twitter. Oh, I know you have castigated its truncated textspeak in the past, and I confess it took me a bit of practice to get the hang of it. But you can't help but find the 140 character limit to be a bracing discipline.

Intriguing suggestion, Laura Lee!


Laura Lee,

Ever since my fairly major late-July surgery, i've had numerous occasions to e-mail my Kaiser HMO's GP and surgeon, and am faced w/ a daunting limit of 1000 characters, which is clearly, I grant, a lot more generous than the 140 that Twitter allows.

Of course, I still invariably end up having to begrudgingly edit my too-longwinded initial e-mail messages to Kaiser, trimming them down to the basic nitty-gritty of what concerns me at the time.

Hmm....... maybe I should just try my hand at haiku poetry, which is considered one of the sparest, most pithy poetic forms, w/ its inherent
limitations, and structural challenges. Perhaps the requisite economy of wordage would rub off on my approach to prose, going forward.

Zen prose, as it were.

Grasshopper, you ARE learning! HA!

ALEX

I am brooding over the fact that we are going to have to pay to access the Sun's online content soon. This is annoying because I think many of us contribute to the online content. Think we should ask to be compensated? I'm not sure how this would work in a perfect world. If they paid by the word Alex would make out like a bandit.

Wow, Alex, I knew the HMOs like to keep a tight rein on expenses, but I had no idea it extended to how much you're allowed to communicate. 1000 characters, why that's barely seven tweets with not even enough left over to type, "Please sir, may I write some more?" I wonder what their lifetime maximum is.

Perhaps you could convince one of your docs to give you an official diagnosis of Graphomania Type II, and then the HMO would have to grant you accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Re serial comma use, I recall the best reason to use it:

from a dedication, "I want to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

Speaking of wayward punctuation, a recent "Lewis" highlights the misuse of apostrophies hither and thither. At one point, Lewis tells Hathaway that he never paid any attention to them until he met Hathaway. (Hathaway went to Cambridge, Lewis to his local comprehensive.)

Laura Lee: I live on a small island off the eastern coast of North America and north of Baltimore, by which I do not mean Great Britain. Joel, however, is English, as his spelling choices quickly reveal. There are some videos of his Write Badly Well presentations available on his site, though I haven't viewed them myself.

John Cowan, I just viewed the first of Joel's videos. Great stuff. I'll try to get to the others tonight when I have time. He is a pleasure to listen to.

Also, seeing how today is T.S. Eliot's birthday, I plan to reread Tiresias as I enjoyed that thoroughly the first time; no run-on sentences there.

Dahlink, I too am wondering how the transition to paid access to the blog is going to work out. Good point you make about compensating all the content providers; could we possibly earn our keep by submitting comments in lieu of payment?

Of course, getting paid could take some of the fun out of it. Might seem more like a chore. As our mutual friend, Owl Meat Gravy used to say, "I expect the best I can do, or else why bother? Now if I was getting paid I'd have no trouble phoning it in."

Maybe the biggest question is how long "You Don't Say" can hold out from devolving into the new, improved, unusable format that's been the fate of "Baltimore Diner, nee Dining@Large". I suppose at that point we'll all just congregate on Professor McIntyre's facebook page (yes Dahlink, you too!) to continue the conversation.

By my calculations, John Cowan is either in Nova Scotia or on Staten Island.

Laura Lee, you may well be right. I have succumbed to LinkedIn (in a modified hang-out sort of way, just to see how it works).

Eve, why not an island off Maine? Or Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket?

Eve and Dahlink, I assumed John Cowan meant either Saint-Pierre or Miquelon, n'est–ce pas?

Cheers,
Tim


Dahlnk,

Frankly, as an expat Canuck, I can't quite see our John Cowan as an adopted 'bluenose" (Nova Scotian); although, I imagine, technically, beautiful Cape Breton Island would fit the bill.

Interestingly, the island of Nantucket almost immediately came to my mind, as well, when I first read John's post, and he revealed that he lived on an isle somewhere north of Baltimore. That's quite a broad swath of the Atlantic, w/ tons of possibilities.

Nantucket, w/ the whole Cape Cod-Kennedy-Camelot-dynasty stompin' ground thingy going for it, isn't exactly low-rent, if you get my drift. (Of course, Hyanissport (sp. ?) is the site of their legendary compound.)

Seems like Nantucket is mainly populated by a rather insular, exclusive enclave of highly successful, affluent writers, artists, and media high-roller types, who have either set up permanent residence on the island, or a summer getaway retreat. Kind of a Long Island North, if you wlll.

But who knows? John might be independently well-off, and can easily afford occasionally rubbing shoulders w/ those jet-setters and nouveau riche. Could have even inherited some old 19th century whaler mogul's vast fortune. We can dream, can't we? HA!

Pass the crab cakes, s'il vous plâit.

Oh, and hold the mayo.

ALEX


Back to the use of commas--I am currently reading (avidly) Alinea chef Grant Achatz's memoir "Life, on the Line." The title would have worked as well without the comma--but the meaning would have changed. Thoughts?

For those who are not familiar with his story, this rising culinary star was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. He rejected a surgical solution in favor of a more experimental cure. His life (and tongue) were saved, but he lost his sense of taste. Fortunately, that came back eventually--one taste sensation at a time.

The island on which I reside is none of the above, but the famous and much-trodden isle of Manhattan. (Eve was closest.)


John Cowan,

Hmm......... and here I was plotting out your distinguished family tree like those dogged sleuths on PBS's "History Detectives", figuring some enterprising captain Ahab-type 'sealubbering' relative had amassed a veritable king's ransom in the lucrative 19th century international whale oil/ amber grease trade; and a few generations hence you may have somehow inherited his seafaring whale-begotten-gains? Nantucket was within your grasp. Boy, did I blow that one. (Thar she DOESN'T blow. HA!)

Indeed, Eve, w/ her earlier shot-in-the-dark Staten Island guess was not that far off target.

Manhattan, although strictly (geographically) speaking a bona fide island, never struck me as such, since it has historically been integrally interconnected w/ the 'mainland' by so many bridges and other key transportation links.

But the Big Apple/ Manhattan it is.

Mystery solved.

ALEX

Manhattan, Kansas (so we are told) is known as the Little Apple.

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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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