(Less for you speed-readers out there: well done, you!)
James Thurber was once asked why there was a comma in the sentence “After dinner, the men went into the living room.” He replied that it had been added by Harold Ross, the New Yorker editor, and that the comma was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.
A stickler for commas
A fortnight or so ago, Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State (for Brits, sort of the equivalent of the Foreign Secretary) was in the news because of emails circulating in his bailiwick urging, at his behest, careful use of commas: “The Secretary has underscored the need for appropriate use of commas…”
The hacks pounced on it gleefully, like flies round you know what; here was another golden opportunity to mock a member of an administration most of them detest.
Besides, his pedantry was piquant grist to their mill of slagging a President who rides roughshod over basic spelling and punctuation rules. [I’m not terribly keen on “piquant grist”, but if you must, you must; nor on the rest of the sentence, really. Sigh. Ed.]
They claimed to find it baffling, if not downright ridiculous, or[,] at the very least[,] highly suspect, that a man concerned with weighty matters of state could be bothered about a piddling little convention. The patronizing tone of mock-incredulity abounded, as displayed here.
But hang on a moment.
Let’s leave the toxic politics1 of all this aside for a while… [note, two words, a while].
Journalists are (allegedly) literate. Those Americans who write (rather than pontificate orally) have their very own style guide, the AP Stylebook. Most serious printed media similarly have their individual style guides (e.g., in Britain, The Times, The Telegraph, The Economist, The Guardian/Observer).
Such style guides don’t provide comprehensive guidance on how to use commas – presumably because any competent journalist is presumed to already know (a dangerous presumption these days, when much online news seems to be written by novices or interns whose grasp of the finer points of English can be hazy). Journalists who belittle attempts to help State Department officials punctuate “better” could be considered a mite disingenuous.
What’s wrong with good, old-fashioned rules?
What could be wrong with proffering advice to drafters struggling with the minutiae of comma use?
In the punctuation pecking order, commas are the most underrated and overlooked mark; yet[,] they are the most versatile and useful – and, surely, the most frequent.
Being the most versatile, they are also the most complex. As illustration, for example, the excellent Penguin How to Punctate devotes a generous 54 pages to them[,] compared with the 15 it devotes to the full stop[,] and the 16 to the colon.
However, it’s easier to give simple rules than to say, “Well in some cases do this, but in others do that, it’s all a matter of editorial judgement”[,] as the Penguin book does. Otherwise, who knows where we might end up? And simple rules is what the emails circulating in the State Department enjoin.
Or are they simple?
Hardly a science
The problem is, wielding commas is an art, not a science.
The emails cite the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) as their bible[,] and refer to specific rules. [I put a comma there, and Grammarly and CMOS don’t like it, but I do. But then, I have been accused of over-commaing.]
The following type of comma was approved:
- CMOS 22 states: “When independent clauses are joined by and, but, or, so, yet, or any other coordinating conjunction, a comma usually precedes the conjunction.”
So far, so good, but it then goes on to say, “If the clauses are very short and closely connected, the comma may be omitted (as in the last two examples) unless the clauses are part of a series.”
Rules within rules and wheels within wheels
So, we have Rule A, with exception B, which has its own exception C.
The State Department example, lifted straight from CMOS and showing appropriate use, was: a) We activated the alarm, but the intruder was already inside.
Is that first clause “very short”, at a mere four words?
Seemingly not, in this instance.
Yet the examples given by CMOS for exception B have comma-less first clauses with that exact same number of words.
b) Electra played the guitar and Tambora sang.
c) Raise your right hand and repeat after me.
Both have four words, like that clause which is closed off by a comma We activated the alarm.
Which raises the question, what is “very short”?
Perhaps we should [,] therefore [,] resort to the clauses being “closely connected”. But how does one define, let alone measure, that “connectedness”?
I repeat, commas are an art, not a science, and this would-be rule only highlights that fact.
Pause (possibly for thought)
I think most people (editors) would happily accept the need for a comma in example a) (We activated the alarm, but the intruder was already inside).
Similarly, a comma in b) (Electra played the guitar and Tambora sang) might seem OTT to many. But could one, hand on heart, say it was plain wrong?
And the same applies to c) (Raise your right hand and repeat after me).
If you base where to put commas purely on grammatical function/syntax, you ignore one of their key functions, namely, to indicate pauses, that is, treating what was written as if it is to be spoken; and [,] to provide emphasis.
For example, if spoken, Raise your right hand and repeat after me would sound perfunctory and formulaic, whereas Raise your right hand, and repeat after me arguably matches the gravity of the occasion.
The Penguin guide suggests several tests to decide where to insert a comma. One of them is “If in doubt about a comma, apply the ‘pause test’. Say the sentence to yourself, and if you hear a pause, put in a comma …”
Fine, as far as it goes, but I might “hear” a pause [,] and you might not, or vice versa.
And it seems that in the past [,] writers “heard” pauses more often than we do.
The twelve years, continued Mrs Dean, following that dismal period,1 were the happiest of my life: my greatest troubles in their passage rose from our little lady’s trifling illnesses, which she had to experience in common with all children, rich and poor. For the rest, after the first six months,2 she grew like a larch,3and could walk and talk in her own way,4 before the heath blossomed a second time over.
Cap. 18, Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
The first marked comma separates its subject – The twelve years – from its verb – were – in a way not nowadays allowed (although it is, in my experience, quite common in academic writing, mainly due to long-windedness).
The second, separating a prepositional phrase saying “when” from the main clause, could nowadays easily be left out.
The third clearly contravenes CMOS 6.23: “A comma is not normally used to separate a two-part compound predicate joined by a coordinating conjunction (A compound predicate occurs when a subject that is shared by two or more clauses is not repeated after the first clause.)” [Emphasis mine].
And the fourth, separating a following subordinate clause from its main clause, is not nowadays generally considered necessary.
Could anyone say they are wrong? Outmoded, possibly, but effective.
“If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad” (in my case, my friends say[,] that boat sailed long ago) is a quotation doing the rounds, possibly uttered by a frustrated lexicographer.
The thought applies equally to commas.
1 In a comment on one of the reports about Pompeo’s punctiliousness, someone said: ”It’s so comforting that a person suffering from OCD is one of the adults in the room with the person with malignant narcissistic personality disorder.”