Saturday, July 11, 2015

calling all grammar Nazis

On Twitter, author Neuroskeptic links to this National Institutes of Health abstract re: universal grammar, an extension of Noam Chomsky's notion of transformational grammar. Frustratingly, the abstract contains an error that appears right at the start, and I've highlighted it below:

Universal Grammar (UG) is a suspect concept. There is little agreement on what exactly is in it; and the empirical evidence for it is very weak.[emphasis added]

The problem, in the italicized sentence above, is that there's a semicolon where there shouldn't be one. This is the exact opposite of a comma splice, i.e., an error in which a comma is used when, really, what you need is a semicolon. Example of a comma splice and its corrected form:

Khal Drogo has a thousand horses, tonight he looks for a different sort of mount.

RIGHT (1):
Khal Drogo has a thousand horses; tonight, he looks for a different sort of mount.
RIGHT (2):
Khal Drogo has a thousand horses. Tonight, he looks for a different sort of mount.
NB: The comma after "tonight," while preferable, is increasingly optional.

The above comma splice, and many like it, comes courtesy George R.R. Martin and his first epic novel, A Game of Thrones.

Stephen R. Donaldson, like the writer of the scientific abstract above, also tends to throw in semicolons where none are needed, which makes Donaldson a sort of anti-Martin in terms of his grammatical errors. Here are some reeking Donaldsonisms:

She regarded only Jeremiah, felt only him; knew only that he responded to her embrace.
And every thought led to fear and contradiction; to dilemmas for which she was unprepared.
The stab of abused ribs when he breathed insisted that he was alive; but he ignored it.

—Stephen R. Donaldson, The Last Dark

In every Donaldsonism above, the semicolon should be replaced by a comma. Donaldson is my favorite fantasy writer, so it's disappointing to see him making such rookie mistakes and, further, to know that those mistakes got past his editors.

I've talked about semicolons at length before; you'd do well to reread that piece. As for commas and coordinating conjunctions, the rule is this: when separating two independent clauses, you can use EITHER a semicolon OR a comma-conjunction. With only a few exceptions, DO NOT USE A SEMICOLON WITH A COORDINATING CONJUNCTION.

GOOD: Kevin was angry, so he farted. (comma-so)
GOOD: Kevin was angry; he farted. (semicolon)
GOOD: Kevin was angry, and he farted. (comma-and)

BAD: Kevin was angry; so he farted.
BAD: Kevin was angry; and he farted.

This goes for "if" conditional sentences as well: DO NOT USE A SEMICOLON TO SEPARATE CLAUSES IN CONDITIONAL SENTENCES! Why? Because if is a subordinating conjunction, which means that the clause after if is a subordinate clause. Use a semicolon ONLY to separate two independent clauses.

WRONG: If you love me; you'll insert this hamster into your dark place.
RIGHT: If you love me, you'll insert this hamster into your dark place.

My question, though, is this: if a Martin-style error, in which a comma is used instead of a semicolon, is called a "comma splice," then what's a Donaldson-style error—in which a semicolon appears instead of a comma—called?

First one to get back to me with the proper term, and with a link to an authoritative source describing that term and giving examples, gets a million Anselmian dollars.



Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I want to see those Anselmian dollars first; then, I'll look for the answer.

Jeffery Hodges

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Kevin Kim said...

I think it's safe to say you see them already, for they exist only in the understanding.

John (I'm not a robot) said...

Thought you might enjoy this article:

Not sure if she is a grammar Nazi, but she does profess to be a "comma queen".

Thank goodness I'm a libertarian who writes any damn way I please.