Thursday, June 30, 2011
Comma commentary and controversy
A while ago I wrote, ". . . To say that, is an idiotic and ignorant overstatement."
Some would say that there should be a comma after "ago."
Some would say that no comma is necessary after "wrote."
Some would say that no comma is necessary after "that."
I decided to insert that comma to force a pause to break up the common phrase, [this could be a colon] "that is."
The comma is is the second-smallest piece of punctuation, usually not much bigger than a fly turd, but its effects and controversy are huge.
A book title is based on the pesky little curlicue.
Editors, major media [Some would insert a comma here.] and even universities have comma policies.
The serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma and the Harvard comma) is a comma inserted ahead of a conjunction (and/or/nor) after the second-to-last item in a list of items. When I was in school, I was taught to insert a comma before the “and” in a series like this: “I like lobster, shrimp, clams, mussels, and oysters.” Rosie, who copyedited my first two self-published books, deleted all of my final commas to make my writing more talk-like and contemporary. Sheila, my new editor, laboriously inserted many commas in a recent book. I tried to use Rosie’s style in my later books. There is no agreement among grammarians or editors in this area. The Associated Press Stylebook and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage oppose the serial comma, but that attitude may be based on the need to save space in crowded newspapers.
The comma has multiple uses. They are so diverse -- and sometimes conflicting -- [Note the use of dramatic dashes instead of mere commas.] that some uses probably deserve a new punctuational [Is that a word?] device. How is the reader to know if the writer wants her to pause at the comma? Should readers be expected to know not to pause when a comma introduces a quotation?
Sometimes [Should a comma be inserted here?] other punctuation marks, such as the em dash or colon, [There was no need to be dramatic here, so I used commas around the phrase.] can be suitable substitutes.
The second-smallest piece of punctuation can be confusing and complex, and subject to much disagreement.
1. “I’m going to the movies with my friend Billy” implies [In theory] that I have several friends, and one is named Billy.
2. “I’m going to the movies with my friend, Billy” implies [In theory] that I have just one friend, named Billy.
According to the authoritative Chicago Manual of Style, it used to be that a lack of commas signaled restriction: that is, the meaning of “friend” in the first sentence would be restricted to Billy, implying that I have other friends as well. Commas signaled nonrestriction: that Billy is my only friend, so his actual name is ancillary, disposable information. It was a pretty good system.
Commas in nonrestrictive constructions have become optional, which is fine when the likely meaning is obvious (as in “my wife Marilyn”), but unhelpful in the case of a friend.
Of course, if I was the evil Osama bin Laden, who apparently had five wives, the correct construction would be "my wife, Amal Al Sadah."