Words at Work

Kathy McIntosh: Consider the comma, a tool for cadence and clarity

Boise author, speaker and freelance editor. Owner of A Well-Placed Word.April 16, 2014 

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Kathy McIntosh


In my last column, I promised to deal with the rules of commas when dealing with appositives.

I address the topic, however, with a weighted heart. In the past month, I have heard the death knell of the comma tolled. A Jan. 28 Slate magazine article by Matthew J.X. Malady quoted linguist and Columbia University professor John McWhorter: "[We] could take [the commas out of] a great deal of modern American texts and you would probably suffer so little loss of clarity that there could even be a case made for not using commas at all." In Malady's article, incidentally written without the aid of commas, Malady cites the elimination of the comma in tweets and texts without a loss of meaning or clarity.

Such arguments have raged for centuries, since the comma was introduced as an aid to speakers, to suggest when a pause was needed. In the highly entertaining book I have often cited, "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," Lynne Truss explains that commas (and other punctuation marks) had two distinct purposes: "to illuminate the grammar of a sentence," and to "point up - rather in the manner of musical notation - such literary qualities as rhythm, direction, pitch, tone and flow." She recounts the often fiery verbal battles between humorist James Thurber and his New Yorker editor Harold Ross in the 1930s and 1940s over Ross's insertion of commas into Thurber's work.

My take? Yes, commas may be thrown about too freely by some and like the superfluous branches on my rose bush, benefit from pruning. However, I maintain they have a valuable purpose when used to clarify and add grace and rhythm to our writing.

Before we get to appositives, let me remind you of a basic rule about commas that I omitted last time. Never put a comma between a subject and its verb. "Fred is a waiter at the diner." Not "Fred, is a waiter at the diner."

Now let's consider appositives. An appositive is a noun, a noun phrase or a noun clause that renames or identifies another noun right beside it. "The dog, an old Labrador with a grizzled muzzle, lay down beside the bench." The noun phrase identifies the dog but could be deleted without changing the basic meaning of the sentence.

Another example: "My neighbor Brad makes me smile." "My neighbor Winston annoys me." No commas, because I have more than one neighbor and if the sentence were written "My neighbor annoys me," we wouldn't know which neighbor was at fault. In truth, I have lovely neighbors.

"Movie director Wes Anderson has a knack for odd humor." "Movie director has a knack for odd humor" doesn't make sense. Thus, the appositive "Wes Anderson" is essential and requires no commas. If the sentence were, "Wes Anderson, a movie director and screenwriter, has a knack for odd humor," the appositive that identifies Wes Anderson would not be essential to the meaning of the sentence, so it would be set off by commas.

A comma used well can strengthen communication. A comma gone amok can confuse.


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