Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you

Comma, comma, comma, comma, comma, Chameleon. How to use commas (2). Pompeo and commas and CMOS.

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3-minute read



In the wake of Secretary Pompeo’s edicts about punctuation, which hit the U.S. headlines in late September this year, I blogged about the conflict between commas as what I will call “syntactic boundary markers” and as pauses in speech. I suggested that commas are art, not science. By which I mean that there are several circumstances in which most authorities agree they are optional. Inserting or omitting them thus becomes a matter of personal style, not of blind rulebook-following .

The State Department circulated emails with examples of good and bad comma use. An extract from these Pompean edicts illustrates my contention perfectly. The Chicago Manual of Style (henceforth CMOS) 6.26 gives the example below and the State Department emails lifted it verbatim – except that they added the comma after and, suggesting it be removed.

Burton examined the documents for over an hour, and, if Smedley had not intervened, the forgery would have been revealed.

First, it’s worth noting that CMOS itself says this: “When a dependent clause intervenes between two other clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction, causing the coordinating and subordinating conjunctions to appear next to each other (e.g., and ifbut if), the conjunctions need not be separated by a comma.” [Underlining and emboldening mine].

“Need not” does not mean “must not” or “should not”.

Second, at the end of 6.26 CMOS says, “Strictly speaking, it would not be wrong to add a comma between the conjunctions in any of the examples above.”

CMOS is thus indulging in a sort of now-you-see it, now-you-don’t disclaimer.

Moreover, I suspect that to understand the reasoning behind the veto on commas in those circumstances could strain even the most nitpicky State Department staff because of the terminology involved. But, in case it helps you, gentle reader, here goes. (There are links to Englicious’s helpful glossary for each term.)

A: Burton examined the documents for over an hour, = MAIN CLAUSE

B: and[,] = COORDINATING CONJUNCTION

C: if = SUBORDINATING CONJUNCTION

D: Smedley had not intervened, = DEPENDENT (or SUBORDINATE) CLAUSE

d: the forgery would have been revealed. = SECOND MAIN CLAUSE

Whether you insert that comma or not, IMHO, depends on how comma-friendly or comma-averse you are.

I would retain it but accept that others will consider it fussy.

My argument would be that writing the sentence comma-less thus

Burton examined the documents for over an hour, and if Smedley had not intervened, the forgery would have been revealed.

seems to me incomplete. And it seems so for a reason that CMOS also admits: “Such usage, which would extend the logic of commas in pairs, (see 6.17) may be preferred in certain cases for emphasis or clarity.”

A subtle argument could be made that that comma is dispensable in the sentence as it currently stands but would become necessary if the dependent clause were extended, for example like this:

Burton examined the documents for over an hour, and if Smedley had not intervened, the forgery would have been revealed.

Burton examined the documents for over an hour, and, if Smedley had not intervened so excitedly that he seemed to be on the point of blowing a gasket, the forgery would have been revealed.

In academic writing, where long sentences are the order of the day and the authors themselves often get trapped in the maze of their own verbiage, I tend to insert such commas to break up the flow and provide balance to sentences. But the length of that dependent clause can have an impact, as also might the weight and balance of the surrounding clauses, as I hope the comma-laden example above suggests.

In contrast, the following example is from a work whose prose style has been described as “needlessly obscure.” That said, and despite what I say in the previous paragraph, I would not insert a comma after the highlighted if.

If, indeed, as Fallon, Quilligan, and Franke argue, Milton’s Paradise Lost eschews the sacramental innocence of the sign that has been miraculously transformed into a sacred object, and if the poem’s central epistemological claim is to the internal processes of interpretatively spiritual (that is subjective) truth, then the poem’s uniformity of vision and tactile materiality lend these processes real, indeed tangible, substance.

(It’s only 62 words long but feels wearisomely longer to me.)

And the reason I wouldn’t is that that if follows on clearly and logically from the If that introduces the whole sentence. It is a discoursal if being used to construct an argument, in that way that connotes “let us suppose this proposition to be true, and I too am doing so for the sake of my argument”. It is not the hypothetical if of the CMOS examples, in which something might or might not have happened.

Over such minutiae – now there’s a word I can never quite decide how to pronounce, but the link shows I am not alone – do we editors cavil. Perhaps it really is time to get out more.

But before I put on my coat, here’s a question for any editors “out there”. Would you leave the emboldened comma in this (authentic) sentence or remove it?

The upregulation of myocardial beta-1 receptors has been shown to re-sensitize the myocardium to adrenergic stimulation with dobutamine and, if a similar upregulation of sinoatrial beta-1 receptors took place, may partially or fully restore chronotropic competence.

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

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