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by Lionel E. Deimel

Punctuation style, like necktie widths, changes over time. In the current era, in which commas, being almost universally electronic, do not even require lead, people punctuate as though commas were made of gold. I cannot understand why this punctuation mark is being expunged consistently and mindlessly from most writing. Having labored at learning the arcane rules governing comma placement, I no doubt have a stake in assuring that those rules continue to command respect. It is not merely out of professional self-interest, however, that I assert that properly placed commas are often critical to the readability of text.

I have frequently encountered sentences that have nearly caused me to write angry essays on the omission of necessary commas. Recently, I have been reading Gore Vidal’s novel Burr (Random House, 1973), and I have found Vidal particularly niggardly in his use of commas. An irritating sentence in Chapter 21 finally roused me to action: 

Some weeks before Adams had appointed the secretary of state John Marshall chief justice of the United States.
When I first read this sentence and reached “United States,” I expected it to be followed by a comma and an independent clause. I had no reason not to expect a sentence such as:
Some weeks before Adams had appointed the secretary of state John Marshall chief justice of the United States, the President had conducted a long interview with him.
Instead, I encountered a period, forcing me to return to the beginning of the sentence to try parsing it some other way. The sentence, of course, should have been rendered something like:
Some weeks before, Adams had appointed the secretary of state John Marshall chief justice of the United States.
This sentence is nearly immune to misreading, whereas Vidal’s original sentence positively invites it.

The problem here is a frequent one caused by a missing comma: the reader comes to a semantic fork in the road as he reads the sentence and, lacking a guidepost, proceeds down the wrong path about half the time, often reaching the terminal punctuation with no viable theory of what the sentence means.

Less metaphorically, the reader implicitly builds a parse tree as he reads a sentence. Sometimes there is ambiguity as to the intended (“correct”) parse tree before the sentence has been completely read. (If there is ambiguity even after the entire sentence is read, we say the sentence is ambiguous. A classic example is: “They are flying airplanes.” Are “they” pilots or airplanes? The ambiguity is sometimes cleared up by the context in which the sentence appears.) If the ambiguity persists for only a few words, the reader usually rejects incorrect parsings and continues with the proper one without any awareness of the mental processes at work. The longer the ambiguity persists, the more likely the reader is to notice the problem and to need to reread some or all of the sentence to choose the most likely interpretation. The reader usually begins rereading not because he does not know how to choose between interpretations, but because he earlier settled on the wrong one, and he discovers that that interpretation is not viable.

In the case of Vidal’s sentence, the reader encounters a problem when he reaches “Adams,” which raises the question whether “before” is an adverb or a subordinating conjunction. A comma after “before” would signal that the sentence begins with an adverbial phrase, with “Adams” beginning the main clause. The lack of a comma makes the function of “before” unclear, but the reader is likely to play the odds, assume that the absence of the comma is significant,  and erroneously conclude that he is in the middle of a subordinate clause. Knowing that the author of the sentence uses commas sparingly is not of much help, unfortunately; the absence of a guidepost is only significant if one knows that guideposts are invariably provided when needed.

What are the relevant punctuation rules, anyway? My edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (the 14th—the 15th edition will be out in a few weeks) advises that introductory adverbial phrases are “frequently” followed by a comma. Short introductory phrases “usually” do not require a comma “unless misreading is likely.” Misreading is highly likely in the case of the sentence from Burr. There is an exception, by the way, for phrases that immediately precede the verbs they modify, as in: “In the street stood a large dog.”

Personally, I almost always insert a comma after introductory adverbial phrases, a policy that removes the guesswork on my part and costs but a keystroke. The argument for omitting commas whenever possible is, I presume, that they needlessly slow the reader.

Vidal’s use of three successive noun phrases in the sentence—“the secretary of state,” “John Marshall,” and “chief justice of the United States”—subtly encourages misreading. As it happens, all three phrases refer to the same person. Many people will recognize John Marshall as a former chief justice; fewer people, however, know that he served as secretary of state before his judicial appointment. This encourages “chief justice of the United States” to be viewed as being in apposition to “John Marshall,” which is incorrect. In fact, “John Marshall” is an appositive to “the secretary of state.”

I would argue that the sentence requires two more commas, although they alone cannot prevent misreading. The word “the” in “the secretary of state” is specific enough to make “John Marshall” non-restrictive. The Chicago Manual of Style advises that non-restrictive appositives are “usually” set off by commas. Without a comma after “before,” of course, we might expect a comma after “state” anyway, indicating the end of a subordinate clause, and one before “chief,” before what appears to be a non-restrictive appositive.

I think a more natural phrasing would make “John Marshall” a restrictive appositive by eliminating the article: “secretary of state John Marshall.” Following this by “to be” or “as” would clear up earlier the ambiguity created by omitting a comma after “before.” My suggested punctuation of Vidal’s original sentence becomes:

Some weeks before, Adams had appointed the secretary of state, John Marshall, chief justice of the United States.

The better sentence, I believe, would be something like:

Some weeks before, Adams had appointed secretary of state John Marshall as chief justice of the United States.
But enough second guessing of the author of an otherwise fine novel!

My point is that, although commas are sometimes redundant and, particularly when reading aloud, may slow the reader, they often are necessary to clarify meaning. (Some readers will, no doubt, find excess commas in both this sentence and the preceding one.) The author who omits commas gratuitously often does the reader a disservice and, potentially, requires of him unnecessary effort. Moreover, the policy of only using commas when they are absolutely necessary—Vidal apparently uses a yet more permissive standard—is error-prone and tends to make punctuation seem arbitrary and inconsistent. Can we please have more commas?

— LED, 5/27/2003, revised 6/9/2003


Comma   Comma   Comma   Comma   Comma   Comma   Comma   Comma   Comma   Comma   Comma


Postscript: A instructive Joke-of-the-Day message from The Humor Network arrived in my inbox today. It contained a joke about a panda who ordered a sandwich in a restaurant, killed the waiter with a pistol, and left. It was explained that, according to the dictionary, the panda “eats shoots and leaves,” which, for the purpose of this joke, is interpreted as “eats, shoots, and leaves.” Commas do make a difference.

— LED, 6/18/2003 


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