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Opening Arguments

An interesting commatary

I like the clever play on words in this headline -- Fanfare for the Comma Man -- and the article is pretty interesting, too. The writer, a university of Delaware English professor, correctly notes that the use of punctuation evolves over time and that often what's used is a matter of personal preference as much as the rules of grammar. The evolution has been speeded up considerably by -- well, you know what:

You see this kind of thing all over the Internet as well. People punctuate that way because, if they spoke these sentences, they’d pause after the conjunction (and because the extremely fanciful and undependable Microsoft Word grammar and style checker refrains from applying a squiggly green underline).

My students are, not illegitimately, making a grammatical transformation as well: turning the conjunctions into what are called “sentence adverbs” — words like “Presumably,” “However” and, yes, “Hopefully” that are followed by commas when they start sentences. Punctuation rules may and probably will change accordingly. But they haven’t yet, and I tell my students to lose the comma.

I guess I've been a bit of a nitpicky purist when it comes to punctuation, and I've noticed in my own writing evolution I've followed the trend of "fewer is better" when it comes to commas. But, rightly or wrongly, I still sometimes use punctuation for the effect I want to have on readers rather than to follow the strict rules of grammar. And one thing I really haven't totally given up (despite being pounded on it regularly by my first boss here) is what may be called the "breath-pause comma." If it seems natural in speaking to pause after an introductory clause, it seems natural to put a comma there, too.


Wed, 04/11/2012 - 1:18pm

Leo, (noun of direct address) a question for you.  The last sentence of the article begins with and introductory

 adverbial clause that is set off with the comma.The comma before "too" creates a question. Do you set off "too"

only if it empasizes an abrupt change of thought (Chicago Style) or do you follow the more relaxed rule that

"too" is set off to designate "in addition"?

Harl Delos
Wed, 04/11/2012 - 2:01pm

I tend to put punctuation outside the quote marks unless the punctuation is being quoted.  I notice that this is increasing being used on the internet.  To be clear, however, I was doing it before Al Gore invented the internet.  They've always done it my way in the UKGBNI, and it was changed by American newspaper editors back when newspapers used hand-set type, and were trying to avoid damage to their periods and commas.  By amt logic, they should have gone back to the British Rule with the adoption of linecasting machines.

And I used to have English teachers and other grammar police write every so often, telling me that my newspaper's style was wrong.  I always published their letters, with a comment such as, "You're correct. Thank you for writing". But I persisted, nine the less.

Nice thing about being editor.  You don't have to use AP stlebook; you can create your own.


Leo Morris
Wed, 04/11/2012 - 2:05pm

Now that you've made me think about it, I realize that many old-school writers use the comma there most of the time and that I do, too -- but I'd feel much less uncmfortable leaving it out of "I do as well." Funny.


Wed, 04/11/2012 - 2:38pm

Leo, if you're like me, you probably find yourself following AP style when it comes to commas inside the punctuation, even when I'm not writing for publication.

However, I drop AP style like a hot potato when it comes to the Oxford Comma and the spelling of "advisor." I'll spell it "adviser" the minute AP agrees to "superviser" and "advisery."

Of course we both remember when AP insisted on hyphenating "teenager." A true abomination.