Saturday, January 22, 2022

Althouse's error

I don't normally read Ann Althouse; she was an Obama voter who has been trying to claw her way back to respectability. My friend John McCrarey, perhaps more forgiving, does read her, though, and he occasionally sends Althouse links my way. Althouse is a self-proclaimed language nerd, but as you'll see in the example sentence below, she ain't perfect.

I'm going to try again to watch it, for the sake of this post, but I'm going to publish first, because I don't know how many on-and-off clickings it will take for me to reach the end.

Did you catch it? It's a comma error—one that's rather common among those who think "a comma marks a pause." Specifically, it's the comma in front of because: it needs to be deleted. The word because is a subordinating conjunction; subordinating conjunctions* introduce subordinate (dependent) clauses. I alluded to how comma rules for complex sentences are different from those for compound sentences in my previous "find the error" post, but let's make the rule explicit, here: if the subordinate clause comes first (like in this very sentence), use a comma. If the subordinate clause comes last, then no comma. Here are two simple examples to illustrate how this works:

If you do that again, I'll kill you.
I'll kill you if you do that again.

In the above sentences, if is a subordinating conjunction introducing the subordinate clause you do that again. In the first sentence, the subordinate clause comes first, so there's a comma. In the second sentence, the subordinate clause comes last, so there's no comma. All of this is covered in Part 2 of my ongoing comma series. As I've contended before, if people were to read only Parts 1 and 2 of my series, they'd eliminate 95% of their comma errors. So, what are you waiting for? Go read and master this!

Keep in mind that an actor reading a line with a because in it will often pause before the because. This prepares the listener for the reason that's coming next, and it's a natural thing to do. However, the pause you hear in the voice reading does not translate, on the page, into a pause marked by a comma. This is why I've been at pains, again and again, to get people to stop thinking about how commas mark pauses. They do mark pauses on occasion, but the rule itself is misleading, as we see above. So stop retreating to vapid bullshit like "commas mark pauses" and "this sounds right" or "this sounds awkward" or "this just doesn't flow." That's all a bunch of vague nonsense. Where there are explicit rules to guide your writing, learn them and use them. This is how to improve.


*An incomplete list of subordinating conjunctions would include: because, before, after, if, that, when, although, even though, even if, while, during, in order to, provided that, unless, until, once, so that, etc.

1 comment:

  1. Althouse has been a bad influence on me. It's all her fault!



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