Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Using Commas, Or Come, on really?

One of the complaints I hear is "With you attitude toward grammar you can't have any mistakes." And, to a certain extent, that's true: if enough people are doing something often enough then it stops being a 'mistake' and becomes 'part of the language.' Deciding when it's "enough people" and "often enough" is a historical and statistical issue with fuzzy boundaries.

Up until those boundaries are reached, however, you can have errors. You can one-off errors where some just 'makes a mistake'--you point out to the person what they did, they say "Oh, right! I can't believe I did that" and you both carry on with your lives. People also make systemic mistakes: they believe something works one way and do that thing over and over again thinking it's the way the language works. Here, when you point out the error, you often have to provide an explanation or a reference to an authority--and you shouldn't be surprised if the person involved (perhaps, you) makes that mistake a few more times in the future (or never gives up that mistake): it's a habitual or systemic error.

Commas, for instance, are a never-ending fountain of systemic errors by writers. All of my sons--bright, intelligent human beings who can write well--regularly screw up using commas. Ignoring its use in creating lists, commas can be used to mark out a segment of a sentence that could be removed from the sentence without altering the sentence's meaning: the part of the sentence between the commas adds information/colour/whatever that isn't essential. On CNN, I found this example (all the examples in this column are from CNN):

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, might already be in this camp. 

If the R-Ohio is lifted out, the sentence still works. Here, the commas must come in pairs: an opening comma that marks the start of the phrase working in conjunction with a closing comma that marks the end of the phrase.

Commas are also used to mark opening and closing phrases in a sentence, as in this example:

But looking plainly at the political chess board and listening to sources on Capitol Hill, there is plenty of reason to think that a shutdown of the federal government won't happen, at least not next week.

Here, again, the information up until the first comma and following the last comma could be omitted and the sentence would still work.These commas work in conjunction with the start or end of the sentence.

So far, so good. But I've had many writers I've worked with tell me that they thought commas were to mark a pause, a breath in the sentence. This makes sense only if you believe we read all sentences aloud to ourselves...and that seems unlikely. In the following sentence, the part following the second comma could be used that way if you want to imagine (for instance) Wolf Blitzer taking an ominous pause just before the word "just":

Bluntly, many Republicans fear they will be blamed for a shutdown, just months before a big congressional election year.

Except that there must be about 40,000 ways to read that pause and the comma provides no guidance on which way to use (in the unlikely event that readers paused at all). 

If we assume that reading is different from talking and no one "reads" a pause: Why is the comma there? The word "just" introduces a subordinate clause and is all the introduction that the clause needs. If you want to assume that readers "read a pause" for the comma why wouldn't you believe that readers "read a pause" before a subordinate clause?

That comma before the word "just" is a reflection of something now done often enough by enough people that it's become a rule: the word "but" must be preceded by a comma:

Conservatives forced him to go to war with a different version fully defunding Obamacare, but Boehner's opening move was an important signal that he wants to sidestep a shutdown.

A "but" (like "that" or "then" or "which") is all the introduction that a subordinate clause needs--the comma adds no value. However, it's now common practice and (I'm sure) I could find some examples in schoolbooks advocating for it.

All of this assumes a relatively close punctuation style with lots of commas. If you go with a more open punctuation style you can omit many commas and many problems go away. This example, for instance, has commas around "among other things" which can be lifted out:

His defense is trying to prove, among other things, that the ship's watertight doors did not function properly, and that is the reason the ship sank, leading to all 32 deaths during evacuation. 

But why the commas around "and that is the reason the ship sank"? The "and" indicates that we have a two part list--why break it up? A more open punctuation style would abandon that comma and eliminate an opportunity for error.

One final example:

In Kentucky, problems plagued the exchange site until mid-afternoon, but more than 1,200 people had purchased policies or enrolled in Medicaid, according to Gwenda Bond, spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

The "In Kentucky" is an opening phrase so the comma that follows has a purpose. However, removing the opening phrase would make the sentence senseless (what would the following "this" be referring to?). In a more open punctuation style, that first comma could be eliminated. 

Then, however, we have the commas around "but more....Bond"--that's part of the point of the sentence and couldn't be eliminated. Reading to the end, however, we discover that the comma following "Bond" is actually marking off a closing phrase (beginning "spokeswoman..."). That means that the comma before "but" is a standalone comma marking....what, exactly? Surely not a pause. And how would a reader, seeing the comma before "but" know that it doesn't mark the start of a paired set--especially when the reader does, finally, find the second comma after "Bond"?

I've never met a punctuation mark I didn't like. And I do prefer a close punctuation style. But let's all use commas less:
  • In lists of more than two items
  • In strings of adjectives ("she was a tall, lithsome beauty"), if you want to
  • In pairs, to mark off removable parts of a sentence
  • To mark off leading/trailing phrases, if you want to
And let's stop dropping commas in automatically before some magic word that doesn't need the comma. If we don't start doing this now, it will become a rule. And we don't want that, do we?

Reading or read

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