On Saturday mornings, I think about punctuation

Two days, two sentences, each one appearing on a website edited by people who should know better. The nouns have been changed to protect the guilty.

Exhibit A:

Freelance writer, Bob Mahoney, has the answer.

Exhibit B:

White Bear Lake sixth-grader, Brett Larson, spends his Monday afternoons like a lot of kids – on the Internet.

In both cases, the commas around the name are incorrect — not optional, or ill-advised, but just plain wrong.

For some reason, this is a very difficult rule to understand. I know that because I’ve been a part-time college English teacher for the equivalent of 10 full-time years and a newspaper editor and reporter for another 10. I have tried and failed hundreds of times to explain this simple rule. I’ve tried to explain it to one small staff of one small newspaper for the better part of two decades, and they still can’t get it right. (Which is part of the reason I had to quit that job. Call it comma-induced psychosis.)

I could explain it by using terms like restrictive (essential) vs. non-restrictive element, or appositive vs. descriptive phrase, or subject vs. modifier, but instead just think of it as “the rule of thumb.” Put your thumb over what you have between commas. If it’s still a good sentence, then the commas are correct. If not, delete them.

In Exhibit A, if you remove the name, the sentence reads “Freelance writer has the answer,” which is a ridiculous sentence. “Freelance writer Bob Mahoney has the answer” is a perfectly acceptable sentence.

In Exhibit B, the sentence would read “White Bear Lake sixth-grader spends his Monday afternoons on the Internet.” That works as a headline because headlines eliminate many otherwise necessary words, but it does not work as the first sentence of a story. The sentence should read “White Bear Lake sixth-grader Brett Larson spends his Monday afternoons on the Internet.”

While we’re on the subject, I may as well tell you why the Associated Press is wrong about the Oxford Comma (a, b, and c) and always has been and always will be. Also referred to as the Harvard comma or the serial comma, this little friend is recommended by every style manual EXCEPT the Associated Press Stylebook, so it’s fairly clear who’s right.

I’ll just say this: Including the Oxford comma always prevents misreading. Following the AP rule always creates ambiguity.

Exhibit C: I like three kinds of sandwiches: tuna fish, peanut butter and jelly, and ham and cheese.

When people are trained in AP style (as most American readers and writers are, sadly) the sentence above is ambiguous because no one knows if the “and” after “butter” is the end of the series or not. If we were all trained in the Oxford comma, there would be no ambiguity and no possibility of misreading.

Even AP acknowledges that the Oxford comma is sometimes necessary to prevent misreading, so their unwillingness to join the crowd is inexcusable. I reckon it’s because newspaper editors are fundamentalists and just ain’t bright enough to figure it out.

They simply follow the rules they were taught, whether they understand them or not, and they were taught (by some old curmudgeon in suspenders) to do two things: delete commas and delete the word “that.” (Some other Saturday I’ll explain what a wonderful word “that” is, when used in moderation.)

Another comma you almost never see in newspaper and magazine copy is the “coordinator.” (It’s another of Sheridan Baker’s “four basic commas” described in The Practical Stylist. Strunk and White recommend similar comma use.) The coordinator is used with a coordinating conjunction when joining two independent clauses.

In other words, if you want to make two little sentences into one big sentence, use a comma before the conjunction. This, too, makes misreading almost impossible.

For example, look at these two sentences:

My dad chewed sunflower seeds, and he spit out the shells.

My dad chewed sunflower seeds and spit out the shells.

Most AP editors would delete the comma in the first sentence, so the reader would not know if another subject was coming (he), or just a verb (spit). If the coordinator is used consistently, the reader always knows what’s coming.

The basic rule of the “coordinator” comma is this:

SV(etc.), and SV(etc.). (compound sentence, comma before “and”)

SV and V. (simple sentence, compound predicate, no comma before “and”)

If we all punctuated that way, all writing would be clearer, but unfortunately we have the AP style book competing against better models, and we have armies of editors who compulsively delete commas, so we end up with sentences that cough and sputter like a badly timed engine. When we see “comma and” we don’t know what direction the sentence is going. We stand at a fork in the road, turning our heads from side to side.

One final comma for today: the introducer. AP also recommends this comma in many cases, but journalists rarely use it, again for the simple reason that they don’t understand the AP style guide and just do what some uninformed editor or journalism professor taught them decades ago, which is “see comma, delete comma.”

And again, the introductory comma always prevents misreading because it signals that the subject of the sentence is coming (the grammatical subject, not the topic, for those of you who know the difference).

Here’s one from an old student: As I grew up coloring inside the lines became boring.

A simple introductory comma after “up” makes it impossible to misread the sentence. Without it, most readers will have to stop, back up, and start again.

Four basic commas, as described by Sheridan Baker: inserter, linker, coordinator, introducer. It’s not that hard, but AP makes it harder with their outdated rules and internal inconsistency, and editors make it harder with their poor understanding of grammar and their own style book.

Commas are road signs that tell readers where sentences are going. They should be treated as friends, not enemies.

I should also note in closing that comma rules, like all grammar rules, are rules of thumb. There are always exceptions, and good writers may choose to break the rules for a certain effect or, to quote Orwell out of context, “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” But as Richard Starkey once said, “You got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues.” In other words, editors should know the rules before they break them.

One more final final note: Not understanding punctuation or grammar should not disqualify anyone from being a writer. Some of the best writers know nothing about proper use of commas or the difference between a dangling participle and a split infinitive.

Editors, on the other hand, should know better. Too many couldn’t tell a dependent clause from Santa Clause, even if you placed them side-by-side in a police lineup. Unfortunately, the number of people who understand basic grammar is shrinking, while the amount of published material is growing exponentially. All this goes back to the 1970s, when English teachers stopped teaching grammar and switched their focus to “the writing process” (over product). We now have a couple generations of English teachers who don’t understand grammar themselves, so there’s little chance that any of this will change any time soon. Ever, probably.

And those of us who do understand it are often unemployed, either because no one wants to be around us (who can blame them?) or because we had to quit due to comma-induced psychosis.

Speaking of which, should I be collecting disability?


From Salon: Wilson’s new wife, Officer Barbara Spradling won a medal of valor award in 2012


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