Thursday, 7 January 2016

Uses of the comma—Part II

This contains quotes from three sources:
1. Here I provide only parts of Holy Writ by Mary Norris that have relevance to our topic. You can read the whole article at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/holy-writ :

The comma as we know it was invented by Aldo Manuzio, a printer working in Venice, circa 1500. It was intended to prevent confusion by separating things. In the Greek, komma means “something cut off,” a segment. (Aldo was printing Greek classics during the High Renaissance. The comma was a Renaissance invention.) As the comma proliferated, it started generating confusion. Basically, there are two schools of thought: One plays by ear, using the comma to mark a pause, like dynamics in music; if you were reading aloud, the comma would suggest when to take a breath. The other uses punctuation to clarify the meaning of a sentence by illuminating its underlying structure. Each school believes that the other gets carried away. It can be tense and kind of silly, like the argument among theologians about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. How many commas can fit into a sentence by Herman Melville? Or, closer to home, into a sentence from The New Yorker?

Even something as ostensibly simple as the serial comma can arouse strong feelings. The serial comma is the one before “and” in a series of three or more things. With the serial comma: My favorite cereals are Cheerios, Raisin Bran, and Shredded Wheat. Without the serial comma: I used to like Kix, Trix and Wheat Chex. Proponents of the serial comma say that it is preferable because it prevents ambiguity, and I’ll go along with that. Also, I’m lazy, and I find it easier to use the serial comma consistently rather than stop every time I come to a series and register whether or not the comma before the “and” preceding the last item is actually preventing ambiguity. But pressed to come up with an example of a series that was unambiguously ambiguous without the serial comma I couldn’t think of a good one. An ambiguous series proved so elusive that I wondered whether perhaps we could do without the serial comma after all. In my office, this is heresy, but I will say it anyway and risk being shunned in the elevator: Isn’t the “and” sufficient? After all, that’s what the other commas in a series stand for: “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” A comma preceding “and” is redundant. I was at risk of becoming a comma apostate.

Fortunately, the Internet is busy with examples of series that are absurd without the serial comma:
“We invited the strippers, J.F.K. and Stalin.” (This has been illustrated online, and formed the basis of a poll: which stripper had the better outfit, J.F.K. or Stalin.)
“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
And there was the country-and-Western singer who was joined onstage by his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.

The bottom line is to choose one and be consistent and try not to make a moral issue out of it. Or is it? Maybe it’s better to judge each series on its merits, applying the serial comma where it’s needed and suppressing it where it’s not. Many newspapers, both American and British, do not use the serial comma, which underscores the idea that the news is meant to be read fast, in the dead-tree version or on the screen, because it’s not news for long. It’s ephemeral. Print—or, rather, text—should be streamlined and unencumbered. Maybe the day is coming when the newsfeed-style three dots (ellipsis) between items, like the eternal ribbon of news circling the building at One Times Square, will dominate, and all text will look like Céline. Certainly advertising—billboards, road signs, neon—repels punctuation. Leaving out the serial comma saves time and space. The editors of Webster’s Third saved eighty pages by cutting down on commas.

But suppose you’re not in a hurry. Suppose you move your lips when you read, or pronounce every word aloud in your head, and you’re reading a Victorian novel or a history of Venice. You have plenty of time to crunch commas. If I worked for a publication that did not use the serial comma, I would adjust—convert from orthodox to reformed—but for now I remain loyal to the serial comma, because it actually does sometimes prevent ambiguity and because I’ve gotten used to the way it looks. It gives starch to the prose, and can be very effective. If a sentence were a picket fence, the serial commas would be posts at regular intervals.

The term “Oxford comma” refers to the Oxford University Press, whose house style is to use the serial comma. (The public-relations department at Oxford doesn’t insist on it, however. Presumably P.R. people see it as a waste of time and space. The serial comma is a pawn in the war between town and gown.) To call it the Oxford comma gives it a bit of class, a little snob appeal. Chances are that if you use the Oxford comma you brush the crumbs off your shirtfront before going out.

There is a fancy word for “going beyond your province”: “ultracrepidate.” So much of copy editing is about not going beyond your province. Anti-ultracrepidationism. Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little. A lot of the decisions you have to make as a copy editor are subjective. For instance, an issue that comes up all the time, whether to use “that” or “which,” depends on what the writer means. It’s interpretive, not mechanical—though the answer often boils down to an implicit understanding of commas.

Think of the great Dylan Thomas line “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” It’s a bit unfair to consider this as an example, because (1) it’s poetry, and we can’t all write (or drink) like Dylan Thomas, and (2) nobody remembers what comes next. It goes like this: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age.” A gorgeous line. Although it is verse, and quoting any more of it would confuse the issue, it nevertheless passes the test for determining whether to use “that” or “which”: if the phrase or clause introduced by a relative pronoun—“that” or “which”—is essential to the meaning of the sentence, “that” is preferred, and it is not separated from its antecedent by a comma. Maybe some inferior poet would write, “The force which through the green fuse drives the flower” (the audience at his reading would snort), or, worse, “The force, which through the green fuse drives the flower, / Drives my green age” (this writer would never make it into print, unless he hired a good copy editor). “The force” has no meaning without “that through the green fuse.” Take it away and you are left with “The force . . . drives my green age,” leaving you to wonder, What force? Are we watching “Star Wars”? “May the Force, which through the green fuse drives the flower, be with you.” I can hear Bill Murray saying this, but not Dylan Thomas or Han Solo.

The New Yorker practices a “close” style of punctuation. Or, as E. B. White once put it, “Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” If the sentence has an introductory clause (like this one), we separate it with a comma. But if the introductory clause follows a conjunction we don’t. We do make exceptions for “since” or “although.” If the meaning of the introductory clause is restrictive we don’t use the comma. A restrictive clause does not want to be separate from what it modifies: it wants to be one with it, to be essential to it, to identify with it totally. (She was a graduate of a school that had very high standards.) Everything else is nonrestrictive. (He graduated from another school, which would admit anyone with a pulse.)

It’s not always easy to decide what’s restrictive. That’s where judgment comes in. For instance, here is a sentence, chock-full of commas, from this magazine, that was quoted by Ben Yagoda in an online article for the Times: “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret.” Yagoda wrote, “No other publication would put a comma after ‘died’ or ‘cancer.’ The New Yorker does so because otherwise (or so the thinking goes), the sentence would suggest that Atwater died multiple times and of multiple causes.” He added, “That is nutty, of course.” The Times—along with Yagoda, who teaches journalism—prefers an “open” style of punctuation, where the words stream together and every phrase or clause is of equal moment, leaving the reader to figure it out. Some readers are especially proud of their ability to figure it out and like to write letters of complaint and, put, a, comma, after, every, word, to show us the error of our ways.

Secretly, I wondered if I agreed with Yagoda. Once, when I was collating a Gould proof, I had the unsettling thought “What if Eleanor ever loses it?” What if all these commas and hyphens and subtleties of usage prove to be the products of a benign delusion? That was during the Reagan Administration, when many of us suspected that Reagan had some form of dementia, but no one could do anything about it. The country was running on automatic. What if that was the case with Eleanor and The New Yorker? She was getting old, and she went deaf in her later years, so she was tragically isolated from the sounds of speech that were represented in the words she groomed. There was not a single thing anyone would be able to do about it. No one would enter the copy department and say to Eleanor, “Drop the pencil and step away from the desk.” We were in her thrall, as the nation was in Reagan’s thrall. I jumped up and went to a colleague’s office and said, “What if Eleanor goes crazy?” From the expression on her face—“You’re only figuring this out now?”—I knew that we were all well advanced down the path.

Having been teased in the Times about New Yorker commas, I took a good, hard look at the magazine’s policy, and I persuaded myself that in fact these commas were not indiscriminate. They marked off segments of the sentence that were not germane to the meaning. The point of the sentence Yagoda had chosen for mild ridicule, as I pointed out in an online response, is that Atwater expressed regret before he died. What he died of and when he died of it are both extra details that the author, Jane Mayer, provides only to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. They aren’t essential to the meaning of the sentence. They are nonrestrictive.

A while later, a reader wrote in objecting to the commas in this opening sentence of a piece by Marc Fisher: “When I was in high school, at Horace Mann, in the Bronx, in the nineteen-seventies, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers.” The gist of that sentence is that at Horace Mann students enjoyed interacting with their crazy teachers. But if all you see when you read it is the commas, you miss that. Close punctuation is not meant as a guide to stops and starts, like Dickens’s and Melville’s commas. The New Yorker isn’t asking you to pause and gasp for breath at every comma. That’s not what close punctuation is about. The commas are marking a thoughtful subordination of information. I really don’t see how any of them could be done without. The writer went to only one high school, a very special, one-of-a-kind private school that happened to be in the Bronx, and the time that he went there was the nineteen-seventies. None of that is particularly interesting except in the context of a piece that promises to be about the bond between students and teachers. The punctuation is almost like Braille, providing a kind of bas-relief, accentuating the topography of the sentence. It looks choppy, but you don’t have to chop it up when you read it. It is Aldo Manuzio’s comma taken to its logical extreme. It’s not insane—it’s not even nutty. It’s just showing what’s important in the sentence in a subtle way. Another publication would let you figure it out for yourself. And, if that’s what you want, you can always read some other magazine.
In the summer of 2013, in New Haven, where I had gone for the wedding of a friend, I picked up a copy of “Light Years,” by James Salter. I started it in an old hotel, the Duncan, feeling slightly sad that I had never gotten to go to Yale.


This was my first taste of James Salter himself, and his prose is exquisite, so well groomed that I was surprised to come to a sentence with what I considered a superfluous comma: “Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach.” It stopped me. Usage guides say that if you can substitute “and” for the comma it belongs there. I gave James Salter the “and” test, and “thin and burgundy” did not pass. If this had crossed my desk, I would have taken the comma out and made it “a thin burgundy dress.”
The logic behind this rule is that the two adjectives are not coördinate: they do not belong to the same order. One adjective (“burgundy”) clings more tenaciously to the noun (“dress”) than the other (“thin”). Bryan Garner, the expert in American usage, offers another test: reverse the order of the adjectives. Would you ever say “a burgundy, thin dress”? I wouldn’t.
I wondered whether this was the author’s comma or whether it had slipped past the copy editor. I doubted that it was something a copy editor would add. This edition of “Light Years” was typographically flawless. Was it possible that the comma was retained at the author’s insistence? Consider the context: “Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach.” Was the author trying to emphasize the thinness of the fabric in order to linger over the “faint outline” of her stomach? If so, I thought he was misguided, not to say lecherous. (Her name is Eve: she’s obviously a temptress.) But was I going to let a superfluous comma prevent me from enjoying a good read? It didn’t stop me in Dickens, and it wouldn’t stop me in Salter. I persisted.

I was not completely impartial. “Light Years” had an introduction by Richard Ford, whose work I once tried to take a comma out of. The offending comma followed the word “So” at the beginning of a line of dialogue, and Ford preferred to retain it. The choice of Richard Ford for the introduction suggested to me that James Salter, like Richard Ford, might be stubborn about his punctuation. He might be one of the “ear” guys, the ones who think they have to orchestrate each sentence.

Then it happened again: “She smiled that stunning, wide smile.” The phrase “stunning and wide” doesn’t make it for me, and neither does “wide and stunning” (although I would have read right over “wide, stunning smile”). The narrator has already remarked on the wideness of the character’s smile (hence the “that” in “that stunning, wide smile”) and is intensifying its attractiveness at the second reference. “Stunning” qualifies the wide smile. Adjectives not coördinate. No comma.

Again: “It was as if they were aboard ship: some old, island steamer.” An “island steamer” is a kind of boat. There is no danger of someone’s misreading the phrase as a steamer from “some old island.”

And another nautical reference: “The ship was enormous . . . the vastness of its black, stained side overwhelmed them.” This comma seems to be trying to repel a hyphen hovering between “black” and “stained.” It is not a “black-stained side” but a black side, stained: a black stained side.

It’s not that these four extraneous (to my ear) commas diminished my enjoyment of the book, but I did stop and wonder where they came from, the author or the editor, and whether there was any discussion about them. James Salter clearly has a sharp ear and a fine eye. His pen name evokes the word “psalter” while suggesting earthiness. In doing without a hyphen in the title “Light Years” (Webster’s spells it “light-year”), he cubes the meaning: carefree years, seen from an astronomical distance. Just for balance, here is one of his finest commas: “He sailed on the France in the noisy, sad afternoon.” Sad and noisy, noisy and sad. “Noisy” is especially effective because it evokes “nausea,” from the Greek for “seasickness.” Could a writer so sensitive to language have a thing for kinky punctuation?

It was enough to make me doubt my comma sense. Some days, “thin and burgundy” sounded just fine. At work, coming to the phrase “a stout, middle-aged woman,” I automatically started to pluck the comma out and then became unsure. “Stout and middle-aged”? I don’t think so. “Middle-aged and stout”? Definitely not. Wasn’t it the same as “a fat old lady”? “Fat and old”? “Old and fat”? An old fat lady? “An old fat lady” suggests that the fat lady in the circus is being hounded out of her job by an ambitious new fat lady, at which point she will become just another fat old lady. I was driving myself mad.

I decided to write to James Salter and ask him about his commas. He wrote back:
“I sometimes ignore the rules about commas although generally I follow convention and adhere to the advice in Strunk and White. Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences. You don’t get permission for this, of course; you take the liberty.”

When a writer who is not a poet invokes rhythm, copy editors often exchange looks. But Salter went on to describe the reasoning behind each of the commas in question. As I had suspected, with the comma in “Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach,” he was trying to emphasize the contours of the stomach under the dress. “It wasn’t a thin burgundy dress,” he wrote. “It was a thin dress, burgundy in color. I wanted the reader to be aware of the thinness. So you are right. The copy editor probably marked out the comma, and I wrote stet.” He was doing the same thing with “stunning, wide smile,” trying to control the impact of the “stunning” by smacking it with a comma as one would put English on a cue ball. Of my next example, he wrote, “I suppose that there’s no chance of a reader thinking it’s an old island, but I felt an instant of hesitation about old and island as I read the words and wanted to eliminate that.” For this reader, the comma added rather than eliminated the hesitation. As for the last, he wrote, “I think black stained side is too loose. It’s not, as you say, black-stained, but black and also stained. The comma fixes that.” Though Manuzio invented the comma in order to separate parts of a sentence, it can tie words together as efficiently as it keeps them apart.

Some would scoff at these explanations, but I am grateful for them, even if Salter does have some untoward ideas about what you can do with commas and imputes to them a power that verges on magic. The writer is not always the best judge of his own effects, but at least he’s thinking about them. The comma does not fix everything. Sometimes it gets in the way. Salter ended his letter with a recommendation for further reading: “The commas are better in ‘A Sport and a Pastime.’ 

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2. This article is from The Economic Times:
'Comma may be abolished from English language'
'Comma may be abolished from English language' - The Economic Times economictimes.indiatimes.com
LONDON: Death of the comma? One of the most commonly used elements of written English - the humble comma - could be abolished as a punctuation mark without doing much damage to the language, a US academic has suggested.

Professor John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, believes that removing commas from most modern US texts would cause little loss of clarity.

McWhorter said that as Internet users and even some writers become increasingly idiosyncratic - if not indifferent - in their use of the punctuation mark, it may have outstayed its welcome, 'The Times' reported

You "could take them out of a great deal of modern American texts and you would probably suffer so little loss of clarity that there could even be a case made for not using commas at all," McWhorter said.

He cited the OxfordBSE 4.29 % comma, inserted after the penultimate item in a list, as an example of the mark's obsolescence.

"Nobody has any reason for it that is scientifically sensible and logical in the sense that we know how hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water," McWhorter told Slate magazine.

"So these things are just fashions and conventions. They change over time," he said.
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Will We Use Commas in the Future?
Maybe.

There’s no denying that commas are helpful little flecks of punctuation. They allow us to separate written clauses and do good work when especially numerous or complicated groups of things exist in a single sentence. But do we really need them?

That’s a trickier question.

In some ways commas are like ketchup and mustard. We’re glad those things exist. They surely make our french fries and hamburgers taste better. But we’d all survive without them. Some assert that the same is true of commas. Linguist and Columbia University professor John McWhorter suggests we “could take [the commas out of] a great deal of modern American texts and you would probably suffer so little loss of clarity that there could even be a case made for not using commas at all.” 

That may sound crazy to folks who bristle at Oxford comma problems or enjoy pointing out that life without commas could result in lots of sentences like “let’s eat grandma.” But support for McWhorter’s contention isn’t tough to unearth. We needn’t look any further than our beloved cellphones and computer screens. We’re dropping commas more than ever because so much of our daily writing now consists of quick text messages and hastily typed emails. We’re also engaging in frequent IM discussions and drafting lots of sub-140-character tweets. Commas don’t thrive in those environs.

There is no similar confusion about when to place a question mark or a period.
Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

Here’s one recent example from social media: Last week Gmail crapped out for about 50 minutes. So people took to Twitter for the purpose of gabbing about it. And many folks in my feed did so without using commas. One New Yorker writer went with: “ok gmail is down we can just use twitter what could go wrong / back to work.” An editor at BuzzFeed  tweeted “whoa whoa guys I can’t respond to all zero gmails at once.” Writer and biographer Rachel Syme joked about causing the problem: “I rubbed my genie lamp and wished for one of those Freedom programs that keeps you from email but I wished TOO BIG sorry guys sorry.” And writer Jen Doll capped off the Gfail afternoon with this: “I guess all those losers outside skiing or like at the movies or whatever missed out on this exciting adventure we just had.”

Similar comma-less dispatches crop up often in the text-messaging context. University of Michigan English professor and language historian Anne Curzan says that the decreasing use of commas in texts and tweets may be tied to efforts at making communications more stylistically fun and more similar to spoken conversation. She’s talked with her students about how they are repurposing punctuation in their day-to-day communications with friends. They tell her the period is being reimagined to signify seriousness or anger. And the ellipsis can be used to convey skepticism or sometimes unhappiness about something. But she says the comma doesn’t seem to be getting repurposed in texts. It’s being purged.  
Curzan suspects that’s because commas have come to be associated with a more proper and polished approach to writing that doesn’t intuitively jibe with forums that aspire to be highly conversational. She says if you use commas in your text messages “in some ways what it signals is that you’re being more formal.”

It also could signal that you’re an old fogey. And it may get you made fun of by your kids. Consider these recent tweets that concern comma usage:
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4. Here are images taken from Google that highlight the need for commas:

  i. Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.

 ii. Attention
     Toilet
     ONLY
        for
     DISABLED
     ELDERLY
     PREGNANT
     CHILDREN

iii. Let us cook grandma.
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My observation:
What an analysis by Mary Norris! I can understand how difficult the job of copy-editing can be. May be native users can perceive the subtle messages that Slater conveys through the use of the comma but I could appreciate the subtlety only after I read his explanation (though in all probability I’d have intuitively paused where the commas were).

However, such subtleties may come into play very rarely. I think the comma also indicates chunks—small and large. It can be conveniently omitted where the message is clear without it. If I’m not mistaken, these days the comma is NOT used where its absence doesn’t create confusion or delay in comprehending an intended message.

There are three sentences in the above paragraph. Without the comma after ‘however’ we’re likely to read without pause and find later that we should have (whereas in this sentence even without the comma we automatically pause after ‘however’ and before ‘and’ and after ‘later’). The second sentence can be read in one breath though it’s possible to stop after ‘omitted’).While generally speaking, with or without the comma, we pause at the end of the adverbial clause, without the comma we may tend to continue to read ‘these days’ and then pause but that would be wrong because the phrase belongs to the main clause).

But the reader may not possess ‘reading sense’, may pause where unnecessary, may not pause where necessary and thus may find comprehending tough going without the commas; Since the writer cannot know whether the reader is a beginner or a seasoned one, s/he would do well to employ the comma where the pauses should occur. If the writer wishes the reader to read and appreciate the writing, that is.

The comma is not a convention but a tool to ease comprehension.
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