Friday, May 05, 2006

Whole Punch

This year, my back garden will not resemble this.
Because a certain, small, mostly-corgi developed a desire to dig to China.
Or has been infected with Gold Rush fever.
I spent most of yesterday with bags of black earth.
Calvin thought it was a fun game.
He's been digging holes with all the fervor of a robot taking rock samples on Mars, an armadillo after ants - or a copy editor in the comma mines.
In my slogs through the blogs, I've seen little reference, and that only in passing, to the common comma.
Rants about em dashes and various other abuses but not much on the comma. Perhaps I've been looking down the wrong adit, but I'm not certain whether writers are in the habit of using too many commas or fail to supply a sufficiency of them.
Now I learned the basic rules of punctuation at Miss Bustlewhistles bony knee.
Nevertheless, I'm certain that over the years I have developed a reprehensible habit of neglecting certain strictures regarding commas; and, instead, sprinkle them among my sentences much like the cayenne pepper I dusted over the newly-filled holes on my lawn.
So I prospected my reference shelf, dug out an old copy of "Mastering Effective English" and delved into it.
There were 14 rules listed.
I wonder if any of them have been superseded over the years. Rules change. Spellings change. Terms change. Colloquialisms become Standard.
You tell me.

1. The comma is used to set off the name of the person addressed.
Ex: Why don't you speak for yourself, John?

2. As a rule, apositives are set off by commas.
Ex: Cheerfulness is health; the opposite, melancholy, is disease.
The next girl, the one with the big boobs, flounced from the room.
(a) Appositives preceeded by or and titles and degrees after a name are set off.
Ex: The ounce, or snow leopard, has a tail three feet long.
Thomas Kite Brown, M.A., Ph.D., is one of the editors of the
(b) Restrictive appositives do not require a comma.
Ex: The poet Browning. The orator Burke. The year 1970. My friend
Kirby. The word one.

3. Most parenthetical expressions are set off by commas - for example,
however, on the other hand, for instance, by the way, to tell the truth, to say the least, I think, I believe, I repeat.
Ex: Lewis and Clark could not, however, have crossed the United States
without help.
(a) The comma, as a rule, is not used to set off also, perhaps, indeed, therefore, at least, nevertheless, likewise, and other parenthetical expressions that do not require a pause in reading aloud.
Note this is not an absolute rule. Note that if nevertheless replaced however in the example above, it would be comma set. The advice depends, to a degree, on emphasis and style.
(b) Well, why, or now at the beginning of a conversational sentence is commonly set off; etc. is always set off with a comma.
Ex: Why, I hadn't thought of that.
2, 4, 6, 8, etc., are even numbers.

More of the little buggers tomorrow.


Erik Ivan James said...

Thank you!
(;) & (,) beat me senseless!

Rick said...

I keep a box each of commas and semicolons on top of my computer, and use them freely.

Truth to be told, in fact, I haven't the haziest notion of the formal rules (well, maybe I do now, having read your post). I tend to use commas pretty much wherever there'd be a pause if the sentence were being read aloud.

Dennie McDonald said...

my mother was an English teacher - I think I do some things as a way to rebel! Though commas, I tend to try to do correctly - you don't wanna say something totally different than what you write.

Though blog and e-mail writing, I tend to write as quickly as I can so damn the rules! (and often spelling)

Bernita said...

More to come, Erik.

That's the basis of many commas, Rick - that, and to avoid misinterpretation.

Same here, Dennie, and a pair of aunts as well.

kmfrontain said...

Ah, you've just bludgeoned me with my mortal enemy, the illusive comma, who is there, isn't there, should be there, shouldn't be there, changes his mind and is there, isn't, takes a permanent vacation from most writers' grammar faculties, and generally tries to argue me into changing my opinion on current style on a daily basis.

:D Me and comma have arguments during my own writing, and during every proofread I do for Torquere. I hate him. I do. Did you ever notice how he takes the shape of a sickle? A very sharp, teensy weensy sickle. And he's waiting to either help you cut your sentences up into manageable bites, or leave you with a pounding head because he just looks overdone in some instances.

Bernita said...

Yup, KM, or a tadpole embryo that turns into a monster, or some sneaky little virus on a slide.
I've been uneasy about the multiplying little buggers for some time now.

ali said...

One of the most useful books I've ever bought was Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The author goes through different versions of the Bible, showing how misplaced commas change the meaning of entire sentences. But she also goes into the whole debate about commas, with the contrasting points of view, and how not even editors agree.

Bernita said...

Have heard of that one, Ali.
Glad it is useful.

The mis-placed comma has allegedly been responsible for lost inheritances,contentious contracts, and successful challenges to the moot question of whether a woman should be kept barefoot or simply kept.

Lady M said...

I can write properly with the comma. Sigh - but I hate using it. I so prefer the *-*.

It's like a slide, a way to slide it without the pause.

Perhaps like a breathing moment, to carry on the thought or let the thought that is written to morph into an entirely different thought...

Or like an add on.

It is almost symbolic to me, to use the dash, to emphasize the thought patterns, I suppose.

Weird, I rarely use them in my writing for publications. I usually only have them in my blog or personal writing areas.

Interesting B - never truly thought there were schools of discussion on it.

Lady M
You always have the most interesting stuff - hope the dog either finds his way to China or gets you a hunk of gold! *G*

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Although I rarely pay any attention to my own blog *sigh*, I do have reference sites for Comma Splices and Fused Sentences and Serial Commas listed in the writing tools on my lower left sidebar.

I just seem to put commas where I feel a pause in the sentence.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Oh, if the dog pulls up any strange speaking!

Gabriele C. said...

Well, let's see. If a German sentence requires a comma, don't put one in a similar English sentence. But be free with commas in places where you'd never put one in German. :)

Bernita said...

Found that I use more dashes and "..." in blog writing than I ever used before, Lady M.

They used to pound this stuff into our heads. Grammar, punctuation, parts of speech, etc.

Only thing he's managed to pull up so far in this mini-journey to the centre of the earth is a broken antique bottle, Bonnie - but I'll keep that in mind!

Easy to remember, Gabriele, just reverse all rules. (Are you serious?)

PRNewland said...


I have spent the last few days committing commacide in the first half of my WIP novel so I can really relate to this. I can't find my Strunk & White at the moment. I took a break from the novel when I hit a snag and wrote a novella which was so much crisper I was shocked and chagrined by the novels' rampant commas, italics and these "..." things whatever they are.

The only real criticism I got from my in-house editors on the novella (my mom was a copy editor long ago, and my wife has a degree in literary analysis)was the commas weren't needed in compound sentences that have the word "and".

But I can't help it really, I'm a commakazi writer; I'll fly them into any sentence or paragraph no matter how well fortified.

Bernita said...

What a delicious post!

Rule 13 says that the comma is used between the principal parts of a compound sentence if they are joined by a conjunction. If the sentence is short, the comma may be omitted.

Bonnie Calhoun said... that kinda' talkin' fries my brain Bernita...LOL...knock it off!

PS...I love the ellipsis! It's my favorite tool!

Bernita said...

Suuuure it does, Bonnie.
Try another.

I used to dislike ellipses a la Barbara Cartland, now I don't, though I try not to overuse them.
Think they indicate, for one thing, when a character's thoughts are interrupted.

Gabriele C. said...

it's a joke with a nice kernel of truth. Some rules are indeed the opposite in both languages.

For example:
I know that because my father explained it to me.
Ich weiß das, weil mein Vater es mir erklärt hat.

Moreover, hardcover books are too expensive.
Außerdem sind gebundene Bücher zu teuer.

Bernita said...

Ah, thank you, Gabriele.
I wondered if it might be something like that.
Must say I admire your facility.
I have enough trouble with verbs, bilingue, to not worry about punctuation.

Sam said...

I use the Strunk and White Elements of Style when I have a comma question, and for the really nit-picky questions, the Chicago Manual of Style which I bought and think is quite wonderful.

My garden is being attacked by a small dachshund puppy who also seems to think buried treasure lies just beneath the green...LOL

Bernita said...

Shrunk and White is a bible of sorts.
I used to have the Chicago Manual but it probably went out of the house with one child or another.

For The Trees said...

I always try to acommadate punctuation to keep others from foaming at the mouth, but I'm not looking forward to having an editor slice and dice my novel. Still, if they're paying, I'll rewrite.

And the sentence "however, on the other hand, for instance, by the way, to tell the truth, to say the least, I think, I believe, I repeat," has been used several times in one of my stories. I wanted to show that the character was having trouble thinking clearly after being discombobulated. Worked pretty damn good, even if it DID end with an ... !

Bernita said...

That should express the character's confusion nicely, Forrest.
Thank you for the charming comment in your blog post.

elizabeth said...

Ah, the Great Comma Wars! Back in the Bronze Age when we set type onto strips of paper, then pasted it up on boards by hand, I had a job as a pasteup artist for a company that produced books for librarians. Each time there was a comma war, I found myself splicing in 8 pt. commas, then taking them out when the next editor made changes, then putting them back in, then taking them out, then...well, you get the picture.

This became the story of a graphic design career filled with squinted eyes and X-acto knife blade finger cuts. So I finally took a college class in grammar (just a year ago in fact). Guess what: you're not going crazy; the rules HAVE changed, and, even better news, commas are not nearly as difficult as we make them. Apparently there has been a seismic shift towards fewer and fewer commas. The Associated Press style book seems to be the best reflection of this comma-less trend.

Gotta run, there's a peace march on Comma Street! My sign reads: "Punctuate Peace!"

Bernita said...

Thank you, Elizabeth.
May I say gently, however, that sometimes one runs into an editor who rigidly enforces the rules of his youth, and holds a profound distain for the new and improved press style - no matter how many spaces it may save in typesetting.

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