|Publishing Outside the Box…|
Some Comma Dogma
George Bernard Shaw (Maxims for Revolutionists)
selected this quote from Shaw
not only for its wisdom and relevance to the topic, but because it
that particular comma.
Okay, let me catch my
breath…stretch, gird my loins and sharpen my wits. Because it looks as
about to wade into another barroom brawl over punctuation. (At least
I visualize it; I don’t know where my opponents do their best
thinking — but there
they are, dozens of ’em, all pulling style guides
out their back pockets
to fend off an attack, holding red pencils underhand, ready to slash.)
know, I don’t compose this stuff for my health.
Don't put a comma
between the two verbs or verb phrases in a
It is NEVER acceptable to separate a subject from its predicate with a comma.
Never use only one comma between a subject and its verb.
I even ran into one arbiter of style who put it to her readers like this:
Did you know you aren’t supposed to separate a subject from the second part of its compound predicate with a single comma?
Did you know a lot of you do it anyway? Barbarians!
(For those of you who think my rhetoric a bit harsh at times, I’d like
stop and ponder for a moment how positively cuddly I actually am.) What
all these dogmatic phrasings of it, no wonder that rule is seething in
mind. The problem with a lot of these arbiters, however, is that they
oversimplify a normally rational concept, then express it as inviolable
dictate. Listening to them probably won’t ruin your business memos, but
could severely damage an otherwise well-written novel. What they fail
is that “never” is seldom an adverb which actually applies to advice on
1. To prevent confusion or misreading.
2. To achieve an emphatic contrast or drama or gravity.
3. To clarify the structure of a sentence in which the first verb phrase already includes a coordinating conjunction in a pair or series.
4. To emphasize the passing of time (in other words, the action in the second half of the predicate takes place considerably later than the action in the first half).
5. To emphasize that the two parts of the predicate are not of equal importance.
Merriam Webster’s Manual for Writers and Editors says that “Commas are not normally [again, emphasis added] used to separate the parts of a compound predicate.” But it goes on to say: “However, they are often used if the predicate is long and complicated, if one part is being stressed, or if the absence of a comma could cause a momentary misreading.” Then it provides some illustrations:
This is an unworkable plan, and has been from the start.
I try to explain to him what I want him to do, and get nowhere.
For purposes of this essay,
I probably couldn’t have picked examples more apt.
The second is headed “Comma Vomit”, and recommends against certain uses of commas. In fact it recommends against the comma use in my previous sentence, and against the comma in this one. There's a lot of variation of choice in comma use among expert users of Standard English, and it certainly cannot be claimed that ‘Commas should only precede and, but, for, or, nor, so, or yet when they introduce an independent clause’. Do not trust this page.
(Note: American readers ought
not to be thrown off by his placement of a comma or a period outside
the quotation marks; it’s perfectly acceptable in British
probably more logical. I mentioned this in Separated by a Common Language.
He’s presently Head of Linguistics and English Language at the
See the error? That's a comma between subject and predicate. There's absolutely no excuse for it. It is a straightforward flat-out error in modern written English.
I point this out to
convince you that Pullum is cognizant of the rule — and of an actual
he sees one. So am I. Where English usage is concerned, however, he’s
of dogmatic misconstrual of such rules. Me, too.
WRONG: Dick, writes grammar books.
WRONG: Dick writes, grammar books.
RIGHT: Dick writes grammar books.
Don’t put a comma in either of those places.
I know that’s a bit
simplistic but, often, so is their advice. In reality, no native
English — or virtually any non-native of my
acquaintance — would place a
comma in either of those spots, except by typographical mishap. We
this way; there’s no natural pause in these locations. So, why would we
conceivably write like that? By providing such oversimplified
these texts frequently deprive students of answers to the more complex
questions they had, regarding a particular usage, when they opened the
Usually with the result that these students, in future, avoid writing
sentence complex enough to run afoul of that basic
RIGHT: Dick writes style guides. Dick writes and punctuates. Spot is illiterate but likes to chase the commas Dick throws away. Dick is a good writer.
WRONG: Jane reads style guides, but sometimes ignores them. Jane writes steamy novels, and often flouts social convention. Jane is a bad person.
In case you’re not old
enough for this analogy, those were reading primers from the fifties
sixties, and Spot was the dog. Of course, what with canine life
must have been replaced once or twice by this time (maybe Spot III);
the kids are now projected thirty or forty-odd years into their
futures. Dick seems to have spent the intervening time with an
respect for authority, however dubious it proved to be. While Jane
adopted a more bohemian lifestyle. She probably has a cat, and an
has read Emma Goldman and Anais Nin. I don’t think
Jane’s a bad
person — and neither does her cat. Her editor probably doesn’t either…but
up to him…or her, as the case may be.
I was introduced to the young gentleman who was to be my roommate, and found him to be intelligent, cheerful of spirit, unselfish, full of generous impulses, patient, considerate, and wonderfully good-natured.
They slice around the bone a little, then break off the limb.
When the ship rolled to starboard the whole platoon of dancers came charging down to starboard with it, and brought up in mass at the rail; and when it rolled to port they went floundering down to port with the same unanimity of sentiment.
Virginia reel, as performed on board the
The nautilus is nothing but a transparent web of jelly that spreads itself to catch the wind, and has fleshy-looking strings a foot or two long dangling from it to keep it steady in the water.
Each man sought his neighbor's eye, but found in it no ray of hope, no encouragement.
much of the Russ pavement in
We are on
our way to Gibraltar,
and shall reach there five or six days out from the
It was a pleasant business, and was very popular.
It is pushed out into the sea on the end of a flat, narrow strip of land, and is suggestive of a "gob" of mud on the end of a shingle.
We could go on — and use
practically any of Twain’s books to do so — but that ought to be a
demonstration. If you don’t trust Samuel Clemens to punctuate prose,
as well give up on American Literature. Good thing for us Twain wasn’t
influenced by all these modern style guides — or maybe it’s just that
weren’t influenced by Twain.
But inasmuch as this obviously differs from American English, the American pedagogues remain faithful to the grammarians of the era before phonology became a science, and imitate them in most of their absurdities.
I wondered what I could come up with from Oscar Wilde, outside of his plays or poetry, and quickly pulled this from one of his short stories:
He had been a tea-merchant for a little longer, but had soon tired of pekoe and souchong.
I really wanted something from one of his essays, though; so I opened De Profundis. These are the first three lines:
…Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return.
And you don’t have to look more than four paragraphs into Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad to find this:
The Accountant had brought out already a box of dominoes, and was toying architecturally with the bones.
Finally, I turned to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and what many critics think the exemplary American novel, The Great Gatsby. Wouldja believe ol’ Scott used commas in this manner whenever he felt inclined? The book’s filled with that sort of punctuation. I’ll give you just one pertinent line from the first chapter:
“I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl.”
Had enough? We could go on
like this all day, but I’m sure we both have other work to attend to. I
do, at any rate.
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