Saturday, July 26, 2008

Commas are Not "Pauses"...not "Pauses" at All

About a hundred and fifty years ago, a reader sent me a link to this useful site, which lists--and I quote--"50+ Open Courseware Writing Classes from the World's Leading Universities." If you want to learn how to write essays, stories, poetry, plays, terribly boring business documents, even more terribly boring scientific articles, or blogs that do not insult their readers in every other paragraph and go off into pointless rants about comma splices, this site is for you. If you do not want to learn any of the above, I am not sure why you are reading these words. Go away.

I am still not Officially on My Break and am, in fact, supposed to be marking twenty exams right now, so I shall still not be returning to my regular scheduled railing quite yet. I realise that it has been a long, long time since I claimed I was going to deal with the narrative mode. I am a bad person. I deserve to have to mark twenty exams. I also deserve to have lost at Scrabble to a man who got a bingo* with the word "mariner." He always gets a bingo with the word "mariner." How does he? Why can't I? Why do I always end up with two "v"s, four "i"s, and a "u"?** Is "ivuivii" a word? ("Aalii" is. Use this information well, my friends.)

At any rate...it may be time for another Grammar Moment. It may especially be time for another Grammar Moment because the bleak and sordid fact of the matter is that I have never actually had a real comma-splice rant in this blog. Oh, I mention comma splices in passing occasionally, but I haven't explained what a comma splice is and why the very thought of it makes me try to gouge my own eyes out with my teeth.

I shall deal with commas in general, then work my way up to the comma splice and, incidentally, into a righteous fury.

Here we go:

I have already explained--here--the extraordinarily simple but almost universally ignored fact that a comma is not "a pause" and a semi-colon is not "a longer pause." Punctuation marks, believe it or not, have particular functions. If they didn't, I would not scream and punch my desk when confronted with something like:

He was; a good student who, liked to finish! his work. On time...

If you use a comma, it had better be in your sentence for a reason. Otherwise, I shall have to hunt you down and personally terrify you into learning the punctuation rules.

Let's start with a basic sentence:

John laughs.

Only someone with the grammatical sense of a lemming would write this sentence as follows:

John, laughs.

Why? You don't separate the subject from the verb with a freaking comma...that's why. There's no need to do so. The subject and the verb are connected. A comma between them implies that they need to be separated for some reason.

At any rate, I know that you are right now staring in bafflement at this sentence and thinking, "Why is Kem explaining such a simple rule? Has she finally lost it? Has the marking destroyed her sense of proportion? If she goes mad and jumps into a ravine, can I have her piano?"

I am explaining "such a simple rule" because people break it all the time. They may not do so in sentences as tiny as the one above, but I cannot get through a batch of marking without encountering a shudder-inducing construction such as:

In Beowulf, the title character is a hero because he, is able to expel the monsters from Heorot.

Gosh...the sentence is longer than "John laughs"! It must need more commas! Let's stick 'em any old where!

The whole separating-the-subject-from-the-verb-with-a-comma thing baffles me. Even the erroneous "pause" rule doesn't work here; who besides William Shatner would pause between "he" and "is"? For crying out loud, people: common sense does quite frequently work fairly well with regards to punctuation. By the way, that sentence would also not work with a comma following "In," "the," "title," "character," "is," "a"," "hero," "because," "is," "able," "to," "expel," "the," "monsters," or "from."
Commas are not the chocolate sprinkles of written language.

Someone else might write the Beowulf sentence above as follows:


In
Beowulf the title character is a hero because he is able to expel the monsters from Heorot.


In informal writing, the comma that follows an introductory word or phrase is sometimes optional. In formal writing, it isn't. The comma after "Beowulf" fulfils a certain function: it separates the initial modifier ("In Beowulf") from the clause ("the title character is a hero") that follows it. Leaving out the initial comma can sometimes lead to confusion. For instance, in the sentence:

Once we had finished sorting out the quilts our cousins made us cookies.

the reader may experience a short period of bafflement while trying to figure out whether the cousins had made the quilts or the cookies. Sure, the meaning does eventually become clear, but in that moment of bewilderment, the reader's concentration is broken. A comma after "quilts" saves her a headache and a small amount of despair.

Another common comma problem arises in the following two examples:

Bob was an excellent ninja assassin, and Rosemary had taught him everything he knew.

Bob was an excellent ninja assassin and had learned everything he knew from Rosemary.


Many writers would leave out the comma in the first sentence and add one after "assassin" in the second. I would then grow to monstrous size and stomp on their heads.**

Two simple rules:

1) If you have two complete clauses joined with a coordinating conjunction, a comma must appear before the conjunction.

2) If you have two phrases joined with a coordinating conjunction, leave the comma out or risk Kem's wrath.

Think of it this way: "Bob was an excellent ninja assassin" can be a complete sentence, as can, "Rosemary had taught him everything he knew." They may be joined with a semi-colon or a comma and coordinating conjunction; alternately, you can leave them as two complete sentences. However, "had learned everything he knew from Rosemary" cannot be a complete sentence.*** The "and" there is actually joining "was an excellent ninja assassin" (a phrase) with "had learned everything he knew from Rosemary" (another phrase). There are two sentences in here, but they are, "Bob was an excellent ninja assassin," and, "Bob had learned everything he knew from Rosemary." Because you omit the second "Bob," you are squishing phrases, not clauses, together, and you can (nay...you must) leave out the damned comma.

A major function of the comma is as an indicator of parenthetical words or phrases: i.e., bits of a sentence that don't actually have to be there for the sentence to make sense. Some examples:

The gilded baseball bat, which was falling to pieces, was probably not going to last much longer as a trophy.


Claire, my sister, is completely insane.


The boy slid down the roof, his fingers scrabbling vainly for purchase.
****

It was, however, not a good day to die.


The commas clarify the functions of the parenthetical constructions. The parenthetical pair of commas also, by the way, allows you to separate the subject from the verb...but with two commas (with words in between 'em), not one.

If you write, "It was however not a good day to die," I shall metaphorically flay you.

There are many other tiny comma rules, but these ones will do to go on with. One more huge one remains. It is time, ladies and gentlemen, to discuss my least favourite error:

The Comma Splice.

O comma splice, how I hate thee. How I wish published authors hated thee too. When I am reading happily along in a book by J. K. Rowling or Terry Pratchett, both of whom should really know better, and you suddenly rear your hideous head, I feel like retiring to a corner to weep. Why do people love you so? Why do they not realise that you are promoting terrible laziness? What is wrong with everyone?

A comma splice occurs when a writer joins two independent clauses with a comma. An example might be:

The evil overlord was at the end of his tether, he was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel.


"The evil overlord was at the end of his tether" is a sentence. "He was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel" is a sentence. Together, joined only by a comma, they are still two freaking bloody sentences.

Stop using comma splices! Stop it now! There are so many perfectly legitimate ways to join independent clauses that you have no excuses for your lazy rule-flaunting. Write the sentence like this:

The evil overlord was at the end of his tether; he was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel.


...or this:

The evil overlord was at the end of his tether, for he was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel.


...or this:

The evil overlord was at the end of his tether. He was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel.


Look at all the options. Look at them just sitting there, waiting for you. Pick one, damn it. Don't abuse the poor comma.

Another capacity in which I sometimes see comma splices is in the introduction of quotations into a paragraph. Students get all frightened***** when I jump up and down and scream about the need for them to incorporate quotations into sentences of their own. They end up "incorporating" the quotations as follows:

In
King Lear, Edmund is motivated to revenge by his own illegitimacy, "Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. / Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund, / As to th' legitimate" (1.2.16-18).

Dear fictional student...you are not incorporating the bloody quotation by sticking it onto the end of your sentence by means of an illegal comma. You may as well just be plunking it down into the middle of the paragraph without explanation; you're really doing the same thing here. The only difference is that you've substituted a comma for a period. Make the quotation part of your actual sentence, please. You haven't even realised that the quotation you have chosen is not really appropriate to your point. If you had actually made an effort and incorporated the quotation properly, you could not have failed to notice. Try:

In
King Lear, Edmund's observation that his "father's love is to the bastard Edmund, / As to th' legitimate" (1.2.17-18) spurs his attempt to rise above both "Legitimate Edgar" (1.2.16) and the father whose fault his illegitimacy is.

There: the quotations have actively become part of your argument, and the monstrous comma splice is gone forever. The Forces of Half-Decent Writing have Prevailed.

That's enough about commas for now. I shall leave you with some Filthy Plagiarism:******

composition on hold your blue gold

...the hell? I don't even know what this moron means. I hope he accidentally bites a hole in his tongue.

write a paragraph describing your best friend

example of paragraph describing your best friend


How many times do I have to say this? It's your best friend. Sit the hell down and describe her, you putrefying rat corpse.

writing an essay describing plot eternal present


The Eternal Present
seems to be a film. Perhaps you could go and watch it, then describe its plot. Just a suggestion.

narrative paragraph on making a sandwich


Are there really that many people out there who are incapable of describing how to make a friggin' sandwich? Dude: make a sandwich, then write about it. You can eat the sandwich afterwards if you like. If you steal the description off the Internet, you don't get to eat the sandwich.

essay writing on fame


I'll give you fame, you pustule. I'll make you famous for being a cheating piece of slime. HEY, TEACHERS WHO HAVE SET TOPICS ON "FAME": AT LEAST ONE OF YOUR STUDENTS IS CHEATING! NAIL THE LITTLE FREAK!

essay writing about different ways a person is "smart"


It is understandable that you would need to "cheat" on this "topic," as you are clearly not "familiar" with the whole "smart" thing.

write an essay on fault is within me not in the world


You are an essay on fault is within me not in the world.

paragraph writing about if i were batman for a day


I am still completely incapable of understanding why anyone assigned an essay or paragraph on Batman would not want to write it. Admittedly, I do enjoy the opportunity to imagine what Batman would do to someone he caught stealing an essay about him.*******

My brain is bleeding, and I need to go to bed. I'll be back when I've finished marking and thus honed my bitterness to a fine point.

*A "bingo" is what you get in Scrabble when you use all seven of your letters and earn a fifty-point bonus. It is not what I get in Scrabble when I use all seven of my letters and earn a fifty-point bonus, since I never actually manage to do that. A "scream of frustration" is what you get in Scrabble when you can't come up with a bingo and continually lose to someone who keeps spelling bloody "mariner."
**Just like Dr. Horrible, though admittedly, he only gets to do it in a wish-fulfilment musical number.
***...no matter how sincerely you wish it could.
****
This sentence is pretty clumsy (you want to get the modifier as close to the subject as possible); the problem is that "The boy, his fingers scrabbling vainly for purchase, slid down the roof" is also clumsy in a different way.
*****I can't imagine why.
******New readers: the Filthy Plagiarists' Roll of Dishonour records Google searches done by idiots who stumble upon this site while searching for material to steal.
*******It would involve batarangs and the words, "Fear me."

29 comments:

Suneil said...

Do you plan to publish these entries in book form at some point? Your blog has taught me more grammar than all my school years combined.

Kem said...

Perhaps...eventually...when there is world enough and time...and I discover the joys of Structural Organisation...

Francois said...

I have to ask: if you were time travelling batman for a day, what would you do to Gertrude Stein?

Kem said...

Well...no one has ever accused me of not having a completely insane imagination, but even so, I'm having a hard time visualising Batman and Gertrude Stein in the same universe, let alone the same room. Perhaps I would growl at her, "A bat is a bat is a bat," then accidentally terrorise her into becoming a supervillain.

Gine said...

Thank you, Kem. As an English professor, I feel your pain. I, FEEL, YOUR, PAIN,!!!

come.josephine said...

Well, this comment will seem awkwardly belated, but I MUST say that I continue to find new reasons to admire you and your wisdom even a year after you "saved my life". (This is Ivy from the "Sandwiches are Not Freaking Beautiful” entry so very long ago.) The eyes that daily endure maladroit logic and ghastly sentence structure from students (such as myself) still have strength enough to devote themselves to Dr. Horrible viewings? You deserve a standing ovation…and perhaps Dr. Horrible's death ray to aim at the filthy plagiarists.

Richard Lindberg said...

The Comics Curmudgeon has just had a "what would Margo do?" premium gift and I thought of you. I then re-read this post, as I do every month or so. While doing my writing, I often wonder "What would Kem think of this comma?"

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Dan said...

I know this is ancient, but I just stumbled on it ...

You start out by emphatically asserting that commas are not pauses, but then fail to provide one example in your grammatically righteous rant where a comma does not result in a pause when reading out loud, or where a pause should exist that does not require either a comma or some other punctuation.

Your point that commas serve specific purposes and should be used according to the rules of grammar is absolutely on target, but I think it's a mistake to attempt to disconnect commas from pauses. There a very few instances where commas do not result in a pause (e.g., separating City, State). The only example I can think of where reading requires a pause without punctuation is before the and when an Oxford commas is not used before the last item in a list (which is precisely why I prefer the Oxford comma, since it matches how you read).

If you want your students to be both good writers and good readers, hammering the point that commas are not pauses seems like the wrong approach.

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