Saturday, July 14, 2007

postal scrotum: Max on commas

My good friend Max writes:

About the commas: were you being serious or sarcastic? If you were being serious, read on.

I don't think the comma before "too" is a grammatical necessity. To me, a comma shows that there would be a pause in a sentence (if that sentence were spoken).

When I say things like (and to open another can of worms, should there be a comma here as well?) "I wanted to go the party too, but I couldn't," I don't pause before I say "too." Ergo, I feel that adding another comma to that sentence is not only redundant, it is cumbersome.

To summarize my take on the matter: grammatical rules ain't written in stone; an educated, accomplished, and enlightened writer ought to be able to pursue his own unique grammatical style.

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Take care,


I agree that one can't be an absolute prescriptivist when it comes to grammar. Nuance is possible if one is a good enough wordsmith. The two extremes to avoid are (1) being a total prescriptivist who views the grammar book as God's word, and (2) being a total descriptivist who believes anything goes. However, I don't take this to mean that the middle ground is wide. I think there's a little wiggle room, but that a good writer will, for the sake of communication, try to adhere to established conventions. Language is always changing, but this fact doesn't give us permission to take too much license.

In a previous entry, I had linked to some interesting references on comma usage. Those online resources alerted me to the fact that I, too, am an occasional "comma abuser." Having read those references, I now feel obliged to clean up my own act.

But that's me. Commas are a dicey topic, it's true. I think their usage is in flux, and it may also vary among the different "Englishes" out there-- US, Canada, UK, Australia, India, etc.

On the more general topic of language peccadilloes, I've corrected myself in another area thanks to the rantings of blogger Kilgore Trout (his blog is long defunct, alas). He noted in one of his posts that there is a difference between writing "Dad" and "dad," that difference being roughly analogous to titles like "President" versus "president." "Hey, Dad!" is OK, but "Let me talk to your Dad" is not. In the second case, "dad" should be in lower case because it's not vocative. The lower-case "dad" is a general term, whereas "Dad" is used when addressing my father.

All of which is to say that, on the prescriptivist/descriptivist spectrum, I'm probably somewhat biased toward prescriptivism, but I agree with you in principle: rules aren't written in stone.


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