Tuesday, August 18, 2009

More on the “P” word...

...as in “P” for punctuation. And what were you thinking I meant, particularly given last Friday’s post, hmm? There’s no way I can add to that, so I’ll content myself this week with catching you up with the wisdom I’m accumulating through my daily calendar from Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”. Earlier I took you through the first three months of this year with her; today we’ll consider what I learned about commas from April to the end of May.

Before we go on though, why punctuate at all? Well, if you consider that (according to the calendar) there was no punctuation in ancient texts, and that for a considerable period in Latin transcriptions there were no gaps between words either, then put that together with the different ways even a simple sentence can be delivered, the answer to why punctuation was developed in the first place becomes obvious (if it wasn’t already). The calendar gives the example of ‘“Comfort ye my people” (please go out and comfort my people) and: “Comfort ye, my people” (just cheer up, you lot; it might never happen)’. St. Jerome, who translated the Bible in the 4th century, introduced a system of punctuation of religious texts per cola et commata (“by phrases”), to aid accurate phrasing when reading aloud. And apparently he wasn’t the first one to be concerned with giving hints for vocalization. The earliest known punctuation is credited to Aristophanes of Byzantium (librarian at Alexandria)--around 200 BC he developed a three part system of dramatic notation advising actors when to breathe in preparation for “a long bit, or a not-so-long bit, or a relatively short bit.”

In the May 4 entry I read that one essay on the internet seriously accuses ‘John Updike, that wicked man, of bending the rules of the comma to his own ends “with fragments, comma splices, coordinate clauses without commas, ellipted coordinate clauses without commas, and more.”’ Whew! Most of that is beyond me so thank goodness the calendar didn’t even try to go there), but it did go on to comment that there are rules for commas, as for the apostrophe (covered previously), regarding two quite distinct functions: 1. To illuminate the grammar of a sentence, and 2. To point up – rather in the manner of musical notation – such literary qualities as rhythm, direction, pitch, tone and flow.

Commas set off interjections, and come before direct speech. They also fill gaps: “Annie had dark hair; Sally, fair.” Commas are used with such conjunctions as and, or, but, while and yet to join two complete sentences (I wanted to stay up, but I grew tired and fell asleep). And words that must not be used to join two sentences with a comma are “however” and “nevertheless” (with those two you either start a new sentence, or use a semicolon--who knew? Well, actually, I did–I guess some things I was taught in school stuck after all!). You use a comma in a list of adjectives where an “and” would be appropriate (It was a dark, stormy night compared to The night was dark and stormy). You do not use a comma where adjectives “do their jobs in joyful combination “ and “are not intended as a list” (e.g. it was a fluffy white dog).

Commas can come in pairs known as “bracketing commas” in that you use them to mark both ends of a weak interruption to a sentence, or a piece of “additional information”. In that case, theoretically the “interruption” could be removed without affecting the sense of the sentence. If the clause is “defining” no need to use commas; the calendar example was “The Highland Terriers that live in our street aren’t cute at all.” Where the information in the clause is “non-defining”, then surround it with commas: “The Highland Terriers, when they are barking, are a nightmare.” I got a chuckle out of the May 7 example of a “chap playing Duncan in Macbeth who listened with appropriate pity and concern while the wounded soldier in Act I gave his account of the battle, and then cheerfully called out, “Go get him, surgeons!” (It’s supposed to be “Go, get him surgeons!”) Where’s Aristophanes when you need him, eh?

You know the routine by now I’m sure–I’m off to the day job, but I’ll check in this evening for any comments you care to leave. Cheers!


Erika said...

Good post Molli. I am a punctuation flunky. This information is all useful and relevant to me. I appreciate any and all help.

Anyone know when Janet is going to be online again?

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Nice work Molli, I'm always a fan of the grammatical, and this lays it all out very well. Another quibble of mine is the oxford comma, used after an 'and' in a list, vs. those who just let the words clutter around it. There are issues of clarity either way, depending how a sentence is constructed, but personally I don't like leaving that 'and' naked in the cold. Give it a comma :)

Karyn Good said...

I need all the help I can get when it comes to punctuation. Thanks Molli.

Suse said...

Hi Molli, if only our students would read Eats, Shoots and Leaves. It is amazing how many people have been taught grammar and punctuation in school but retain very little of it. Part of that is because it's tough to make grammar and punctuation interesting. The other problem I see is that people don't read enough, and therefore, do not recognize patterns in punctuation, etc. (You'll notice I did not use a semicolon before 'therefore' since an independent clause does not follow it.

We've got a handout here at work we give students on Possible Sentence Patterns. It's like they've never seen such a thing before. You'd think we'd just handed them the Holy Grail of Grammar.

Erika said...

I want the Holy Grail of Grammar. Sign me up!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Molli,
My favorite example of mixed up commas is:

"Woman, without her man, is nothing."

It should be:

"Woman; without her, man is nothing."

Big difference a semi-colon and a couple of commas make.

Hey Suse, if you've got the Holy Grail of Grammar, let us know!


Suse said...

Unfortunately, I don't have the Holy Grail of Grammar, but I do have Possible Sentence Patterns. If I can somehow attach the document which has been scanned, I'll put it on the blog. Anyone know how?

Molli said...

Hi all - just checking in before taking my weary self off to bed (I'm whining, or is that whinging?).

Anyway, thanks for taking time to read and comment. I'll take any and all contributions to the cause thank you very much Hayley, Suse and Jana. Like Erika and Karyn, I appreciate it all. One of the reasons I'm sharing the calendar tidbits is because they are interesting as well as useful. I don't, however, have a useful source of blog technology references so I don't know how to get that Holy Grammar Grail onto the blog as it were. Maybe if Anita drops by she'll have an idea. Or Hayley, if you check back.

'Night all....

glovin said...

Good post Molli. I am a punctuation flunky. This information is all useful and relevant to me. I appreciate ...........

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