Friday, July 4, 2008

Of Commas and Complaints, Part II

Why do we have grammar? The easy answer is this: to preserve clear communication. If I choose to conjugate verbs any which way I so choose or to rearrange parts of a sentence however I please, do I fault you for misunderstanding me? In the oft-quoted (and oft-misued) words of poet John Donne, "No man is an island." We are in relationship with others, whether we like it or not; and the strength of our relationships and the effectiveness of our communication depend upon the clarity of what we say and write. Grammar matters.

My latest "grammar gripe" is one that is proliferating profusely: failure to place commas in a series. A series is when three or more related words or phrases are placed in a list. Here are a few examples:

Her job required her to pack quickly, to travel often, and to have no personal life.*

The colors of Old Glory are red, white, and blue.

Unfortunately, no real consensus exists about whether or not to use the second or final comma in a series. Some people see commas as replacements for the conjunction "and"; thus a comma before the word and is redundant and unnecessary. However, others see the comma as indicating a pause in speech that demarcates separate items. Here are two examples from the most recent edition of Newsweek magazine that illustrate why I strongly favor the latter function of commas:

"He [George Carlin] was mild-mannered, well read and polite to a fault--all while casually dropping F-bombs." (Kevin Smith, "Remembering a God. A God Who Cussed.")

We'll leave the inconsistent hyphen usage aside for now to focus on the effect of the author's comma (mis)usage. Was Carlin three separate things: (1) mild-mannered, (2) well-read, and (3) polite to a fault? Or does "well read and polite to a fault" serve as an appositive describing or defining his mild-manneredness? "He was mild-mannered, that is, well read and polite to a fault." Do you see the confusion caused here by failing to separate the latter two adjectives with a comma?

"I think he [Abraham Lincoln] embodies those qualities that are the very best in America: upward mobility, an embrace of the future and an ability to stand fast on principle while acknowledging the other side of the debate." (Barack Obama, quoted by Jon Meacham, "The Stories We Tell Ourselves")

This is perhaps less unclear, as the series is introduced by the fact that there are multiple qualities Obama wishes to point out. But we run into the same problem again: Are there three qualities in Lincoln, or is his upward mobility illustrated or defined by embracing the future and diplomatically standing fast on principle?

Here's one final example:

"We are looking for a house with a big yard, a view of the harbor and beach and docking privileges."*

Does your dream house have (A1) a view of the harbor and beach and (A2) docking privileges, or does it have (B1) a view of the harbor and (B2) beach and docking privileges? What is comprised in the view? What privileges do you have? It would be much clearer simply to add the final "serial comma": "We are looking for a house with a big yard, a view of the harbor, and beach and docking privileges." (Version A could be clarified by writing "a view of the harbor and the beach.")

Perhaps I'm being overly picky on what isn't even a matter of consensus among style experts. But as long as I continue to stumble over a missing flick-of-the-wrist's ink, I'll continue to contend for that second comma.

* Thanks to Merriam-Webster's Standard American Style Manual for these examples.


Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Do bring a red pen with you, my dear.

Did I get all the punctuation in the proper places?

Ted M. Gossard said...

Yes, clarity of speech is so important. I've gone a little back and forth on this one- on commas, that is.

One blogger did a post on this, and in answer to my question tried to help me reduce my use of commas, as well as make longer, more flowing sentences. I followed his direction for a time, but gradually more or less drifted back to my old ways, as I simply want to communicate clearly.

This reminds me of my read of two Bible translations, The New Living Translation (NLT) and Today's New International Version (TNIV). I did use the NLT for a time as my main Bible, then eventually switched back to the NIV when I learned that the translators at long, at last, were going to have the revision published.

Anyhow, in recently comparing and contrasting the two translations, I found that the NLT is filled with short sentences to a fault, while the TNIV is in the kind of English I would want to emulate myself, in writing.

That might be a bit of a different subject, but I do find this interesting, as I'm concerned about communicating clearly, and with good English.

And it's interesting that the English usage of commas in the UK is different than our's. I think they tend to use more of them, if I'm not mistaken. I tend to want to use more of them myself.

So though I think I'm back more to my original style of writing, that blogger did influence me some, so that I am probably less choppy in my writing. But who knows? And I don't want to get overly hung up on it, though it's interesting to me.

(Too many words, and I'm sure you'll use that red pen a time or two, at least!)