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Some Comma Dogma


“When a man teaches something he does not know to somebody else who has no aptitude for it, and gives him a certificate of proficiency, the latter has completed the education of a gentleman.”

George Bernard Shaw (Maxims for Revolutionists)


      I selected this quote from Shaw not only for its wisdom and relevance to the topic, but because it contains that particular comma.
      Did you notice where it’s placed? That’s right, smack dab in between the subject and the second verb of a compound predicate.
      Let’s parse this, shall we, just so we’re all on the same page. The whole first part of that sentence is a long introductory adverb clause, beginning with When and ending with proficiency. You could remove this entire bit and retain the rest. The latter part, beginning with…well, the latter and ending with gentleman could stand alone. But let’s get back to the first part; that’s what interests us here. If you were to remove the initial adverb, When, then you’d have another independent clause, also capable of standing alone. And that one contains a compound predicate. Strip away everything grammatically nonessential from it and you’d end up with a subject, a verb, a conjunction, and another verb. Plus one other thing, the comma. You could write it like this: “A man teaches, and gives.”
      Notice anything strange? I expect that I have a grammatically literate audience, and they’re even now beginning to murmur amongst themselves: “Hey, he used a comma to separate a subject from its predicate.” / “Can he do that?”
      Hell, yes, he can do that. He’s George Bernard Shaw.
      (Incidentally, if you intend to make some case that the second predicate here is actually parenthetical, I find this a weak and ineffectual argument. Either that, or I’d find the argument so compelling it could be used to separate any such predicate, thereby effectively negating the rule. This also applies to any case you could make for an implied subject in the second half, and yields the same result.)     

      Okay, let me catch my breath…stretch, gird my loins and sharpen my wits. Because it looks as if I’m about to wade into another barroom brawl over punctuation. (At least that’s how 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.) You know, I don’t compose this stuff for my health.
      I do it because I’m so weary of seeing promising writers debilitated by their knowledge of grammar and punctuation.
      That’s right, knowledge of it — not the lack.
      I’m sure there was a rule bubbling up in your mind at the outset. Style guides of varying competence, online and in print, express it in various ways. Here are a few versions, quoted verbatim: 

Don't put a comma between the two verbs or verb phrases in a compound predicate.

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!

       Barbarians? Really? (For those of you who think my rhetoric a bit harsh at times, I’d like you to stop and ponder for a moment how positively cuddly I actually am.) What with all these dogmatic phrasings of it, no wonder that rule is seething in your 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 it could severely damage an otherwise well-written novel. What they fail to grasp is that “never” is seldom an adverb which actually applies to advice on language usage.
      A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
      So, before we continue, perhaps we should look at a few other style guides for comparison, just to see if they put this advice in the same terms.
      The Chicago Manual of Style (15th Edition) says: “A comma is not normally used between the parts of a compound predicate…though it may occasionally be needed to avoid misreading or to indicate a pause.”

      “Not normally [emphasis added] used”? “May occasionally be needed…to indicate a pause”? Probably wasn’t what you expected, was it? And the word never never entered into it.
      In a section called “Defensible Splits of Compound Predicates,” Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference lists five. Here they are: 

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.
      So, apparently there are some reasons to engage in this renegade behavior: to avoid even momentary misreading; to indicate that one part of the predicate is being stressed, or not of equal importance; for contrast; or simply to indicate a pause.
      Who knew? Well, a lot of the best writers did. I’ll provide some samples directly.
      But in the meantime, here’s an excellent writer who still does, linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum. He’s described himself on occasion as a “professional grammarian,” though that’s a bit modest. (I’ve listed some of his credentials in The Gospel According to Strunk and White, but they can easily be checked elsewhere.) Mr. Pullum recently took exception to one of these dogmatic internet articles, called “11 Grammar Mistakes to Avoid,” by responding on Language Log with a post of his own: “Eleven mistakes about grammar mistakes.” The whole thing is well worth a read (and I’ve provided a link to it here), but for purposes of our discussion, I’ll just quote number two, in which Mr. Pullum uses his own writing to refute the rephrased “rule” he cites toward the end: 

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 usage, and probably more logical. I mentioned this in Separated by a Common Language. He’s presently Head of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh, so Professor Pullum is allowed.)
      Lest you think this means all linguists are far too free with their punctuation favors (and editors like me, just grammar floozies), I’d like you to see something else he wrote on this same topic. He began by asking his readers to “Take a look at the new issue of The New Yorker (January 17, 2005), on page 62, second column, bottom sentence,” then quoted the passage: “‘It is also odd that other produce bags at the store had a red line across the top but the one with Soto-Fong's prints, did not.’” Pullum then said:

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 error when he sees one. So am I. Where English usage is concerned, however, he’s impatient of dogmatic misconstrual of such rules. Me, too.
      One of the chief problems with most grammar and punctuation guides is their tendency to provide only the most basic examples. Something like this: 

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 speaker of English — or virtually any non-native of my acquaintance — would place a comma in either of those spots, except by typographical mishap. We don’t speak this way; there’s no natural pause in these locations. So, why would we conceivably write like that? By providing such oversimplified illustrations, these texts frequently deprive students of answers to the more complex questions they had, regarding a particular usage, when they opened the book. Usually with the result that these students, in future, avoid writing any sentence complex enough to run afoul of that basic advice.
      If you slavishly follow the dogma of inadequate style guides and online grammar sites, you could soon find your writing reduced nearly to the level of “Dick and Jane” books. 

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 and sixties, and Spot was the dog. Of course, what with canine life expectancy, he must have been replaced once or twice by this time (maybe Spot III); because the kids are now projected thirty or forty-odd years into their grown-up futures. Dick seems to have spent the intervening time with an undiminished respect for authority, however dubious it proved to be. While Jane apparently adopted a more bohemian lifestyle. She probably has a cat, and an attitude, and 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 that’s up to him…or her, as the case may be.
      (I should also probably apologize to Grosset & Dunlap, the current publisher of these books, for any unintended implication that this stuff isn’t intellectually stimulating reading material — for people of approximately age six — and point out that these illustrations of mine are pure satire, not reflective of the actual text. Furthermore, in the original books, Dick didn’t come off as so anal retentive, nor did Jane have an incipient drinking problem.)
      Let’s see, where were we…? Mediocre style guides…misbegotten “rules”…oversimplified/bad advice…the literary quality of “Dick and Jane” books…
      Oh, yes. The “barbaric” practice of separating a subject from its compound predicate by insertion of a comma. I promised some samples of this from fine writers — besides George Bernard Shaw and Geoffrey K. Pullum — didn’t I? After all, examining the usage of those who use the language well is the only way to prove the point.
      As I’ve said elsewhere, when verifying some aspect of usage and seeking the example of an excellent writer, I usually turn first to Mark Twain. In this case, I picked The Innocents Abroad and skimmed the first few chapters. Here’s some of what I found: 

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.


The Virginia reel, as performed on board the Quaker City, had more genuine reel about it than any reel I ever saw before, and was as full of interest to the spectator as it was full of desperate chances and hairbreadth escapes to the participant.


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.


They talk much of the Russ pavement in New York, and call it a new invention — yet here they have been using it in this remote little isle of the sea for two hundred years!


We are on our way to Gibraltar, and shall reach there five or six days out from the Azores.


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 sufficient demonstration. If you don’t trust Samuel Clemens to punctuate prose, you might 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 they weren’t influenced by Twain.
      Next, I went to H. L. Mencken, and glanced at The American Language. There were numerous examples of what we’re talking about, but I rather liked this sentence: 

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 know I do, at any rate.
      It should be obvious by now that good writers actually employ this technique for emphasis or contrast, or merely for rhythm and flow… George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Oscar Wilde, Joseph Conrad, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, not to mention Geoffrey K. Pullum — barbarians all.



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