Comma-Chameleon?

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.

Amen.

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Happy Punctuation Day, comma.

It apears that Jeff Rubin has established his place in history in a manner that few others can claim: he has created a holiday.

It’s today, September 24.

And it is National Punctuation Day, established in 2004.

It is about time somebody recognizes the holiness of punctuation, underscoring once again the profound insight of the great 19th century philologist, Friederich Nietzsche, that “we will not be rid of God until we are rid of grammar.”

Camille Goldston, a graduate of the CiRCE apprenticeship, forwarded the news to the apprentices today and it got me thinking about the purpose of punctuation.

The modernist mind that controls conventional schooling and thought takes an entirely functional approach to grammar and punctuation, and that leads them to basic errors because they lose sight of the logic behind thought, which is rooted in being itself and in the capacity of the human mind to perceive being.

So, being functional and utilitarian, they do things like drop the second comman in a list of three things. This error, which makes reading challenging materials much more difficult, seems to arise from a mistaken understanding of the purpose of a comma.

When I was a child, somebody, probably, I regret to say, a teacher, told me that commas stand in for the word “and.”

So if you say, “John, George, and Sally went running,” you are really saying “John and George and Sally went running.” Therefore, writers should not include the second comma because the “and” is already there. Thus: John, George and Sally went running.

That’s an example of functionalism. We can easily see that there is a list of names and that the word “and” links them together. 

But the instruction goes wrong in two directions, one, the use of the comma and two, the use of the word and.

Consider this sentence from CS Lewis’s The Discarded Image: “This doctrine had a flourishing progeny in the middle ages, and became a popular subject for school debates.”  (What he refers to by “this doctrine” is irrelevant to the discussion at hand, which is strictly formal).

Should there be a comma after “ages”? Generally, in a list of two, you ought not to include a comma. But is this a list of two?

Lewis, a master of punctuation (and one who misuses commas occasionally), would seem not to think so. He seems, on the contrary, to be suggesting that the doctrines status as a school debate is a subordinate idea to its work as a viral parent.

Further evidence that he is trying to subordinate the second clause to the first is his use of metaphor in the first clause, which heightens its poetic quality and therefore impact, and his non-artistic, though perfectly sound, description in the second clause.

So the word and has much too varied a use to be reduced to something that a comma can stand in for.

The more important point I want to mak here is that the logic of the phrase is confused when writers drop the second comma. It is very obvious how the speaker intends the three characters to be related to each other and to their activity in the first option: “John, George, and Sally went running.”

Each of them went running, and each is related to the others on an equal basis in relation to their running.

But what about this: “John, George and Sally went running.” Only the most carefully trained reader can avoid a sub-conscious or conscious inclination to bond George and Sally more closely than John and George.

And the time spent learning to avoid that inclination was wasted because in other sentences the inclination should be honored.

Over at Wikipedia they present a rather famous example of the ambiguity created by the absence of the second (sometimes called Oxford, Yale, or Serial) comma:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

You can probably see the dilemma.

Wikipedia has a really excellent article on this question in which they include the following note on usage:

The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, most authorities on American English and Canadian English, and some authorities on British English (for example, Oxford University Press and Fowler’s Modern English Usage) recommend the use of the serial comma. Newspaper style guides (such as those published by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, The Times newspaper in the United Kingdom, and the Canadian Press) recommend against it, possibly for economy of space.[18]

In other words, people who are trying to write in the breezy, popular, windy fashion of the 20th century want to avoid the comma and the real reason might well be to save ink. People who have a little more incentive to see people think intelligently want the comma included.

The Economist, which is I usually agree with on basic matters of style tries to walk that Anglican middle way:

Do not put a comma before and at the end of a sequence of items unless one of the items includes another and. Thus ‘The doctor suggested an aspirin, half a grapefruit and a cup of broth. But he ordered scrambled eggs, whisky and soda, and a selection from the trolley.’

But the second sentence is precisely the reason it should be included in the first. I’ve been accused of always teaching and maybe that’s true. But if you write after the pattern of the first sentence, the habit of mind that makes the reader more receptive to logical communication is undercut.

A writer should never (in general) direct the reader’s attention to his punctuation. The purpose of writing is always communication of an idea. The punctuation should be as hidden as the letters in each word. By creating a controversy over the serial comma, style guides diminish a little bit more the joy of reading and the freedom with which it can be enjoyed.

The logical relations are only clear in a series when the serial comma is used. When it is not, ambiguity easily arises. On those occasions when ambiguity is not solved by the serial comma, another form of punctuation (parentheses, dash, etc.) or a rearranged sentence offer the easiest solution.