Friday, November 12, 2010

Commas - perhaps there's more than meets the eye.

Update: everything is now in working order.

Commas were the last thing I thought I'd be writing about on this blog. Surely using commas is just like breathing, isn't it? Or pausing for breath, perhaps? Apparently not.

This all started because I've been spending quite a lot of time recently looking at language blogs, and the other day I came across this mild complaint:

I often receive e-mails that begin with the following greeting: “Hi Rachel.” Although this is certainly a friendly way to begin a letter, it violates one of the many comma rules ...

The writer then goes on to cite a rule for using commas when addressing people, saying that the name ought to be followed by a comma. Now as we also have the convention of ending a salutation with a comma, that would leave us with:

Hi, Rachel,
Lovely to read your blog ...

Firstly this looks distinctly odd to me, and secondly it breaks Will's Number One Rule for Comma Use, that a comma represents a short pause.

If I address Rachel, am I really going to pause before her name. Imagine I'm phoning her. It sounds like I've momentarily forgotten who she is. Well, I sent a comment to her blog, and forgot all about it. And then a few days later, I got an email from a different language blog, which started:

Hi, Will,
Thank you for your comment ... (or something like that)

And I thought, 'Hang on. Am I missing something here? ... "one of the many comma rules ...". How many comma rules are there? I only have about four. Have I been abusing commas all my life without knowing it?' That, by the way, was a rhetorical question, not an invitation to tear my punctuation to pieces. Something that I'm painfully aware would be only too easy. Anyway, I decided to investigate.

The advice I found on how to use commas varied from very few rules (but very sound principles), to twenty-one separate instances where commas should (or should not) be used, but no principles. The former is the excellent Common Errors in English Usage, by Paul Brians, Emeritus Professor of English at Washington State University. I looked at about a dozen other sources, which on average listed about ten or twelve rules.

I'd like to quote a little from Brians. First of all, in the introduction to his site, he makes it clear that when he talks of 'errors', he is talking about deviations from what is acceptable among educated speakers, not immutable laws written in stone. And he goes on to say:

The aim ... is to help you avoid low grades, lost employment opportunities, lost business, and titters of amusement at the way you write or speak.

This is very similar to our job as teachers of English as a foreign language. We are not preparing you to have an article accepted by the New Yorker Magazine, but hopefully to be able to communicate efficiently without making too much of a fool of yourself.

Back to Brians and the comma. He opens his (quite short) article like this:

The first thing to note is that the comma often marks a brief pause in the flow of a sentence, and helpfully marks off one phrase from another.

Check Will's Number One Rule for Comma Use. So let's expand on this a little.

Will's Personal Rules for Comma Use

  1. A comma represents a short pause
  2. Use commas to increase clarity and reduce ambiguity
  3. Recognize that there are certain conventions in writing that cannot really be compared with speech
  4. Above all, try to sound natural
Commas quiz
Now I'd like to try a little experiment. You're going to do some exercises with commas in lots of different situations. What I want you to do is to use your instinct. Read the sentences out loud. Where do you think it would be a good idea to pause briefly? Are there any conventions you already know?

Add commas (but nothing else) where appropriate and click on 'Check'. Don't click on 'Explanation' unless you get really stuck. Keep trying till you get it right. When you do, an explanation will appear, together with my comments.

In the explanations the word 'rule' should be treated in the same way as Brians does. In other words, what is normally acceptable. Nothing more.

Click on 'Go' to start. Use the arrows to cycle through the examples.

Add commas where appropriate and then click on 'Check'.

That last comma in lists.
I think that in general in the UK we are taught not to use a comma before the final and in lists, whereas most style guides in the US recommend using it, to avoid misunderstanding. It has a name, by the way, three even. It is called the 'Oxford comma', the 'Harvard comma' or simply the 'serial comma', and reams have been written about it. No doubt Ph.D. theses have been devoted to it.

My theory about and in lists.
Here's another little experiment. Remembering to stress only the nouns, say the words:
two dogs, a cat, a hamster
Now say:
two dogs, a cat and a hamster
If you say it like a native speaker, the stress remains exactly the same, and although we've added a word - and (which is spoken more like 'nd and joins to the 'a' of 'a hamster') - the second phrase takes exactly the same time as the first. That 'and' has simply replaced the pause where the comma was, so no extra comma is needed from the 'pause' point of view. Whether it is needed to avoid confusion is another matter.

And what about that 'Hi Rachel' business.
Well, I think we have two problems here. Firstly, these rules were drawn up long before email arrived on the scene. Email turns the whole thing on its head. Just imagine that every email system in the world was shut down for three days. How would you communicate instead. Now, you might possibly write some letters, you might write some post-it type notes. But I bet you'd also do quite a lot of phoning. You might even actually go and talk to that colleague of yours in the next office who you are always emailing with the latest gossip.

The language we use in emails is as much verbal in character as that of traditional writing. So traditional rules for written English are not necessarily always appropriate. But for some people 'rules is rules' [sic] which must be obeyed, not violated (an ugly word). 'It says here you must use a comma ...' and so on. Now, if they want to use a comma, fine. What I object to is when they say other people are wrong not to. It's simply a matter of style. In support I will simply quote this:

The Gregg Reference Manual notes that a salutation such as Hi Marie technically requires a comma after the word Hi as well as Marie. However, it also points out that this is a very informal salutation, and that inserting a comma after the word Hi would be carrying grammatical correctness to an extreme.

The sources I have used include:

1 comment:

Moira said...

Dear Random Idea Blogger - a most excellent blog! (I used the dash, possibly incorrectly, but it felt right to me!)