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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

Bewildering Stories discusses...

Comma Collisions

In Christopher M. Stanley’s “The Violent Birth of Blue,” a reader raises a question about punctuation.

Now, one might think that punctuation would fall under the heading: “If this is all we have to worry about, we’re in good shape.” Not exactly; we’re dealing with a system, not with detail.

By analogy: if your car’s bumper has a scratch, you may or may not bother to touch it up. If the motor sounds funny, you’ll want to make sure it runs smoothly. Our conclusion will show how punctuation problems can be a sign of problems in syntax.

The sentence and punctuation in question are:

He was her constant companion, her guardian and admirer and, as she turned into the shadows, he pulled the tides up around her shores and settled her for the night.

The reader says, “When I read the story out loud, I naturally want to pause for breath here.” The change proposed:

He was her constant companion, her guardian and admirer, and as she turned into the shadows, he pulled the tides up around her shores and settled her for the night.

Our Style Manual has an astoundingly brief section on commas, but it may tell everyone more than they’ll find anywhere else. In particular: “Commas come in three flavors: required, optional and forbidden.” The principle is an example of itself:

In “Commas come in three flavors: required, optional and forbidden”:

Our Style Manual also lays down the law about “breathing”:

Many writers confuse punctuation with musical notation. In particular, they say that commas indicate pauses or “breathing points” in oral recitation. No, that is not the purpose of punctuation; it is a set of grammatical signposts intended to aid silent reading.

Now what? The sentence quoted is very complex. Let’s simplify it by stripping it down to main clauses and a bare minimum of those:

He was her constant companion, and he pulled the tides up around her shores.

The comma is required before “and,” because the sentence consists of two main clauses, and the subject of each verb is stated.

Since both main verbs have the same subject, why can’t the sentence be written without a comma and without repeating the subject? Namely:

He was her constant companion and pulled the tides up around her shores.

Comma + “and” in this case would qualify as a “British comma.” Please excuse the North American snark, but the rule seems to be: “Put a comma anywhere except where you’d expect one.” Mercifully, we shall leave the “California comma” to the Style Manual.

The same subject, “he,” is repeated because the verbs are of two different orders. “Was” is used as a state-of-being verb; “pulled” is an action verb. The conjunction “and” collapses by being tugged in opposite directions. Solution: Let a semicolon come to the rescue.

He was her constant companion; he pulled the tides up around her shores.

The illustration is a bit sparse, but it is useful. Expanded, the semicolon is a shortcut for “and therefore” in this case. The sentence states cause and effect; the semicolon signals “emphasis back” and emphasizes the cause.

Now, what shall we do with:

He was her constant companion, her guardian and admirer, and, as she turned into the shadows, he pulled the tides up around her shores and settled her for the night.

Taken individually, the commas are all correct:

However, the result is a “punctuation storm.” Comma + “and” is of a different order than comma + parenthetical clause + comma. At least one of those commas has to go. But which one(s)?

Bewildering Stories’ rule marries logic with readability: “and” + a parenthetical phrase or clause makes a complex coordinating conjunction. Therefore, omit the comma before “and” and keep the bracketing commas around the parenthetical phrase or clause. The result:

He was her constant companion, her guardian and admirer and, as she turned into the shadows, he pulled the tides up around her shores and settled her for the night.

However, the commas are still not all of the same order. And that’s a tip-off to the writer and readers: the sentence is run-on. Solution:

He was her constant companion, her guardian and admirer. As she turned into the shadows, he pulled the tides up around her shores and settled her for the night.

German has simple punctuation rules; why can’t English? German solves the problem by having stricter rules of word order than English. And other languages will use punctuation in different ways. For example, the semicolon was common in 18th-century French, but it has since vanished from the written language. As we like to say, “Things would be a lot simpler if they weren’t so complicated.”


Responses welcome!

date Copyright October 30, 2017 by Bewildering Stories

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