Since I’ve been going on over the comma for the past week or so, I suppose it’s time to draw back and get down to foundations. What purpose does the comma serve? She seems so insignificant and so picky – so anal-retentive. Consider:

The purpose of the comma is to serve as a modest symbol of the structure of the thought expressed, thus of perception and its relation to reality.

Do not imagine that “modest” has inserted herself for ornamental purposes. She is of the essence of the meaning of a comma. The comma, like the phonogram, is modest. It is iconic. It does not desire you to gaze on her, as we are now. She is embarrassed by this attention and has told me so in no uncertain terms threating in fact to leave my blog entirely if I continue to talk about her so much. So I have promised her that I will discuss her only when fitting expression of the idea (her beloved) requires it.

It is important that we note this modesty, because, for the most part, conventional thought disregards the modest, having been conditioned and trained to note what appeals to the senses and to neglect the things that appeal to the intellect.

You can see that preference played out both in the neglect of grammar/punctuation and in the neglect of phonics. Both should be attended to only long enough to enable us not to notice them anymore. If we do not attend to them early, we will attend to them unduly late.

So we must allow the comma her modesty, but not to deprive her of her role.

And that role, remember, is to articulate the structure of the thought expressed. She does not do it alone, nor would she want to, but she plays an essential role.

She enables us to coordinate independent clauses, elements in a series, adjectives that modify the same noun equally, contrasted elements, introductory elements, and absolute phrases. onessential elements.

She allows us to set off nonrestrictive phrases or claues, parenthetical ideas, vocatives, and words in apposition.

She helps us to identify direct quotations, to give honor due by separating names and titles, to clarify dates and addresses, to mark salutations and closings, and to distinguish hundreds from thousands, hundred thousands from millions, hundred millions from billions, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Sometimes she simply helps prevent misreading by indicating omissions and separating repeated words.

She does not shoulder the power of a period or a colon, but how very gracefully she does her work, if only we allow her to do so.

Let me conclude my rhapsody to the comma by quoting from the McGraw-Hill Handbook Of English that I mentioned the other day:

This mark of punctuation, more than any other, helps to clarify the meaning of writing. But its overuse and misuse also obscure meaning more than the misapplication of any of the other marks.

Here are three important facts about the comma that you should keep in mind:

  1. It is a relatively weak mark compared to the period, semi-colon, and colon.
  2. It is always used within a sentence.
  3. It has three primary purposes: (a) to separate sentence elements that might be misread; (b) to enclose or set off constructions within a sentence that act as interrupters; (c) to set off certain introductory sentence elements.

Let us praise her modesty, but let us not neglect her or abuse on account of her virtue.

One last thought. If you are well-acquainted with the comma and do not teach writing, you have probably long ago forgotten exactly why you use the comma the way you do.

I write this, not to distress people who seek to honor the comma and use her rightly, but to enable us to someday live in a world where all but the technicians have forgotten why they use the comma as they do, yet all use her rightly; a world where every child holds up his thesis before the whole human race and proudly acknowledges that he has fulfilled his debt to language and to mankind, that he has structured his thoughts coherently and fittingly and, if called upon to defend his actions, can venerate the holy comma for the truth she has pointed him to.


Free Without Fathers?

Gut-wrenching article on family and liberty that needs to be read. I should warn you: I found this in The American Conservative, so you can simply ignore it and, like customers, the problem will go away.

Married to the State

A Delicious Four Course Sentence

I lighted on this sentence in the November, 1963 edition of Horizon Magazine (which happens to be my birth month). Here is the very type of a long sentence that could not be shortened and still say the same thing.

Here is why I love and demand long sentences and why people who cannot read or write long sentences are suffering half-lives:

It was wholly natural that the visitor who approached the holy city of Constantinople from across the dolphin-torn silvery blue of the Sea of Marmara, and rounded the promontory to enter the Golden Horn, saw rising on the spacious platform of the headland–over the masts of the merchantmen and the roofs of the warehouses, over the Hippodrome and the Senate House and the Great Imperial Palace, over the public square of the Augustaeum with its armor-clad statue of the Emperor on his enormous column–the huge domed mass of Hagia Sophia.

My stylistic puritanism is a little distracted by the “dolphin-torn silvery blue,” but I suspect others will love that phrase and I confess that it carries apt information in a tight purse – so I’ll not criticise it much.

I’ll congratulate him for taking a risk that seems to have worked. Blue might have been enough. Silvery might be the word that worries me most. Dolphin-torn belongs, but maybe is just a little jealous of the attention silvery takes from it. But let it stand. Besides, if you take out silvery, the rhythm is broken.

Look at that marvelous structure and notice how the structure is the story.

He (Philip Sherrard) wanted the reader to see the glory of perhaps the greatest building of the middle ages, the largest building on earth for over 1000 years. But he can’t just tell us of its magnitude. A scientific, quantitative description would render the description vacuous. So he puts us there.

We are the visitor. We know the city we are drawing near to is the “holy city of Constantinople.” To get there we cross the silvery blue sea of Marmara, occasionally, perhaps even frequently, in any case, characteristically torn by the unforgettable grace of the dolphins.

We come round the promontory to approach and then enter the harbor of the Golden Horn and we see – “rising on the spacious platform of the headland” – ah but what we see is too great simply to mention. It is majesty. Entering our vision, it is preceded by its royal attendants – each more magnificent than the other.

First, the common people parade before us under their masts and on their warehouse roofs. But higher still is the object of our wonder.

Next, over the gathering place of  the empire, where games are played and emperors sit with their people – even over the 400,000 seat hippodrome, the splendour of our vision rises.

And still, the senate house, meeting-place of Lords, the Imperial palace, the “armour clad statue of the Emperor” towering atop an enormous ten-drum column of porphyry -a hundred feet high or more – all are dwarfed by the incomparable dome that draws our eyes, and with them our souls, to the “transcendent reality” it embodied.

Vividly, concisely, without a wasted syllable, Philip Sherrard brings us into the presence of a lost glory, through the structure of one glorious sentence.

The visitor approaches.

The visitor sees: over, over, over – the huge domed mass of Holy Wisdom.

Notice too the proportion of the three overs, the single conjunction in the first, the double in the second, the absence in the third.

OK, I can’t justify the adjectives in the “dolphin-torn silvery blue” passage. But I’m here to praise the structure of this magnificent edifice, not its color. By holding the dome to the last clause, and by preceding that final clause with a whole series of properly arranged details, he demonstrates the essential skill of the artist, who, as Wendell Berry so aptly expressed it, is one who “knows what to put where, and when to put it.”

Even our ability to enjoy beauty is diminished by the absence of long sentences.

Tory plans for British schools

A very interesting development in Britain vis schools. Not sure what to think of it.

Anybody with an opinion (especially people educated in Britain)?

Another Case for Parallelism

These words are on an IRS document that instruct people how to complete the W-4:

Use this worksheet only if you plan to itemize deductions, claim certain credits, adjustments to income, or an additional standard deduction.

Oh so promising after the second clause. How would you fix it (for the sake of those poor rich people who have to “adjustment” and wonder if they are so supposed to do this)?

By the way, do you notice how much more efficient our country would be if only we taught children grammar/punctuation?

Reading Homer in Byzantium

I was just listening again to a talk by Dr. Bryan Smith called Reading Homer in Byzantium. In it, he outlines how the early Christians taught their students to write, how they selected their literature, and so on.

If you teach writing, reading, or anything that uses writing or reading, or if you are involved with the curriculum for your school, I would urge you to get your hands on this CD. It’s included as disk 23 in the 2007 set.

Bryan explains things like

  • Why we have nine of Euripides plays instead of the 40 or more that he wrote
  • How to practice writing using metaphrasis and paraphrasis (with some very amusing examples of pop music turned Shakespearean)
  • Why we need to read less and slowly

Bryan is always insightful and relentlessly practical!

Visit the CiRCE store to secure this CD or the entire 2007 set.

Where Enlightenment has brought us

Thought by its nature seeks or perhaps is the quest for resolution. Resolution is harmony.

The modern man is in despair of thought because it has led him to the irresolvable condition of naturalism.

Thus modern man does not train thought because it hurts too much except in some limited way because he sees the use for it. But to train thiking for its own sake, or for the sake of seeking truth, finds little room.

The quest for resolution on modern premises always fails because it excludes what its geiger counter cannot detect. Thus true knowledge is impossible and we are left with the quest for power, which is what Bacon had equated knowledge with earlier, as the end of thought.

It seems safe to say that we generally and almost universally prefer feelings and blindness to the pain of thought.

We are Oedipus with a wholly different complex.

Happily very few people are consistent with their principles.