Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Comma Wars

As an editor and teacher who has spent many years fighting the comma wars, I naturally read this City Lights post, and Samuelson's column, with great interest. Most of my students are so averse to commas that I have become something of a crusader on the topic, even though mastery is unobtainable.

I know no better comma story than this one (retold in Lynne Truss' "Eats, Shoots and Leaves"), which resulted from legendary comma battles between James Thurber and Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker. Someone once asked Thurber why a comma appeared in this sentence he wrote for the New Yorker: "After dinner, the men went into the living-room." Thurber replied, "This particular comma was Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up."


namaste said...

Thanks for the reminder of “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”. I bought this book a year ago, and although I didn’t read the entire book, I was very impressed. In fact, I recall thinking that it, along with “The Elements of Style”, should be required reading in high school English. I’ve just pulled “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” back off the shelf, read the section you refer to (and a bit more from that chapter), and had a good laugh. I remember noticing the lack of comments in Thurber’s writing. As a fervent defender of the “Oxford comma”, I must side with Harold Ross. And I must also finish the book, initially put aside due to time constraints, now that I’ve rediscovered it in my very disorganized bookcases.

Another surprise in the book was the discovery that Truss places commas outside of quotation marks. I’m curious to know if she defends this anywhere. For some reason, I thought it was a firm “rule” that the comma had to be placed before the end quotation mark. When I choose to place a comma outside of the quotation mark, I do so with a sense of unhappy defiance. Conversely, on the less frequent occasions when I place the comma inside, I do so clenching my teeth and muttering about idiotic punctuation rules.

Fowler said...

I presume you were just fooling around by referring us to Ed Kemmick’s post.

(The previous sentence not only saved your readers from wasting their time, but it also saved a comma: By referring us to Ed Kemmick’s post, I presume you were just fooling around.)

Really, why do journalists persist in setting themselves up as authorities on the English language? Is that not like a butcher claiming to be a rancher?

Chuck Rightmire said...

And in a short phrase like that in today's functional grammar, you don't need that comma. However, the typical rules of grammar that I learned in grade and high school place commas where they are not needed to give people a break. That's the only time they are needed.

English Prof said...

Speaking of Montana writers, I heard these guys were from Billings:

Can anyone confirm?

Ed Kemmick said...

I have never pretended to be an authority on the English language, just an interested user who occasionally writes about it. I am, however, an authority on Internet trolls, and can state categorically that "Fowler" is a weenie who is not an authority on anything but anonymous sniping. The very first step in establishing authority on any subject is accountability, which means identifying yourself so that people may judge you by your work.

David said...

Namaste, I would have to go read "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" again to be sure, but I think Truss uses the rules of British English on commas and quotation marks. In American English, the comma always goes inside the quotation mark. In Britain, if I understand the rule correctly, the comma goes outside the quotation mark if it clearly is not part of the quotation. So we would write: It was in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," I think or "Leave me alone," I said. They would write, It was in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", I think or "Leave me alone," I said.

However, many -- probably most -- of the college students I teach always place commas outside quotation marks. I don't know where they get it; it's hard to believe they are taught that, but it happens too often to be random chance.

Fowler, I don't know what journalists you know who have set themselves up as authorities on the English language. I can think of only two: William Safire and James J. Kilpatrick. Do you just dislike them because they are conservatives?

I certainly do not claim to be an authority, and I do not believe that Ed does either, but I have spent many years in both the teaching and practice of English, so clearly it is a topic of interest to me. If it bores you, please go away.

Fowler said...

“...but I have spent many years in both the teaching and practice of English...”

Not setting yourself up as an authority, eh?

“...but it happens too often to be random chance.”

Oh, OK. I get it. “Random chance” is an example of why you are not setting yourself up as an authority.

David said...

Thanks, Ed. I was just going to call him a moron, but you said it much better.

In a way, we were both too kind. Neither of us pointed out his ridiculous dangling participle: "By referring us to Ed Kemmick’s post, I presume you were just fooling around."

Guess I will say it anyway: Fowler, you are a moron. Go away.