The unclosed clause and other things about commas

The Baffler carried a fantastic critique of The New Yorker‘s use of commas by Kyle Paoletta on August 23. Excerpt:

The magazine’s paper subscription slips have long carried a tagline: “The best writing, anywhere.” It follows that the source of the best writing, anywhere, must also be the finest available authority on grammar, usage, and punctuation. But regular readers know that The New Yorker’s signature is not standard usage, but its opposite. Nowhere else will you find an accent aigu on “élite” or a diaeresis on “reëmerge.” And the commas—goodness, the commas! These peculiarities are as intrinsic to the magazine’s brand as the foppish Eustace Tilley, and, in the digital age, brand determines content. But the rise of the magazine’s copy desk has done more for The New Yorker than simply generate clicks. It has bolstered the reputation of the magazine as a peerless institution, a class above the Vanity Fairs and Economists of the world, even if the reporting and prose in those publications is on par with (if not often better than) what fills the pages of The New Yorker.

Paoletta’s piece was all the more enjoyable because it touched on all the little notes about commas that most people usually miss. In one example, he discusses the purpose of commas, split as they are between subordination and rhythm. The former is called so because it “subordinates” content to the grammatical superstructure applied to it. Case in point: a pair of commas is used to demarcate a dependent clause – whether or not it affects the rhythm of the sentence. On the other hand, the rhythmic purpose denotes the use of commas and periods for “varying amounts of breath”. Of course, Paoletta doesn’t take kindly to the subordination position.

Not only does this attitude treat the reader as somewhat dim, it allows the copy editor to establish a position of privilege over the writer. Later in the same excerpt, [Mary] Norris frets over whether or not some of James Salter’s signature descriptive formulations (a “stunning, wide smile,” a “thin, burgundy dress”) rely on misused commas. When she solicits an explanation, he answers, “I sometimes ignore the rules about commas… Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences.” Norris begrudgingly accepts this defense, but apparently only because a writer of no lesser stature than Salter is making it.

I’m firmly on the subordination side of things: more than indicating pause, commas are scaffolding for grammar, and thus essential to conveying various gradations of meaning. Using a comma to enforce a pause, or invoke an emphasis, is also meaningless because pauses must originate not out of the writer’s sense of anticipation and surprise but out of the clever arrangement of words and sentences, out of the use of commas to suppress some senses and enhance others. It is not the explicit purpose of written communication to also dictate how it should be performed.

Along the same vein, I’m aware that using the diaeresis in words like ‘reemerge’ is also a form of control expressed over the performance of language, and one capable of assuming political overtones in some contexts. For example, English is India’s official language, the one used for all official documentation and almost all purposes of identification. However, English is also the tongue of colonialists. As a result, its speakers in India are those who (a) have been able to afford education in a good school, (b) have enjoyed a social standing that, in the pre-Independence period, brought them favours from the British, (c) by virtue of pronouncing some words this way or that, have had access to British or American societies, or combinations of some or all of them. So beating upon the reader that this precisely is how a word ought to be pronounced could easily be The New Yorker using a colonial cudgel over the heads of “no speak English” ‘natives’.

That said, debating the purpose of commas from the PoV of The New Yorker is one thing. Holding the same debate from the PoV of most English-language newspapers and magazines in the Indian mainstream media is quite another. The comma, in this sphere, is given to establishing rhythm for an overwhelming majority of writers and copy-editors, even though what we’re taught in school is only the use of commas for – as Paoletta put it – subordination. A common mistake that arises out of this position is that, more often than you’d like, clauses are not closed. Here’s an example from The Wire:

Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, described by Hitler as the “perfect Nazi woman” was held in check by male colleagues when she proposed that female members be awarded similar titles to the males.

There ought to be a comma after woman” and before was but there isn’t. This comma would be the terminal counterpart to the one that flagged off the start of the dependent clause (described by Hitler as…). Without it, what we have are two dependent clauses demarcated by one comma and no independent clauses – which there ought to be considering we’re looking at what happens to be a full and complete sentence.

The second most common type of comma-related mistake goes something like the following sentence (picked up from the terms of service of

You are responsible for the content, that you make available via Authory.

What the fuck is that comma even doing there? Does the author really think we ought to pause between “content” and “that”? While Salter it would seem used the comma to construct a healthy sense of rhythm, Authory – and hundreds of writers around the world – mortgage punctuation to build the syntactic versions of dubstep. This issue also highlights the danger in letting commas denote rhythm alone: rhythm is subjective, and ordering the words in sentences using subjective rules cannot ever make for a consistent reading experience. On the other hand, using commas as a matter of an objective ruleset would help achieve what Paoletta writes is overarching purpose of style:

[Style], unlike usage, has no widely agreed upon correct answers. It is useful only insofar as it enforces consistency. Style makes unimportant decisions so that writers don’t have to—about whether to spell the element “sulfur” or “sulphur,” or if it’s best to italicize the names of films or put them in quotes. It is not meant to be noticed: it is meant to remove the possibility of an inconsistency distracting the reader from experiencing the text as the writer intends.

Here again, of course, I’m not about to let many Indian copy-editors and writers off the hook. Paoletta cites Norris’s defence of the following paragraph as an example of style enforcement gone overboard:

Strait prefers to give his audience as few distractions as possible: he likes to play on a stage in the center of the arena floor, with four microphones arranged like compass points; every two songs, he moves, counterclockwise, to the next microphone, so that people in each quadrant of the crowd can feel as if he were singing just to them.

Compare this aberration to nothing short of the outright misshapenness that was an oped penned by Gopalkrishna Gandhi for The Hindu in May 2014. Excerpt:

In invoking unity and stability, you have regularly turned to the name and stature of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The Sardar, as you would know, chaired the Constituent Assembly’s Committee on Minorities. If the Constitution of India gives crucial guarantees — educational, cultural and religious — to India’s minorities, Sardar Patel has to be thanked, as do other members of that committee, in particular Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the Christian daughter of Sikh Kapurthala. Adopt, in toto, Mr. Modi, not adapt or modify, dilute or tinker with, the vision of the Constitution on the minorities. You may like to read what the indomitable Sardar said in that committee. Why is there, in so many, so much fear, that they dare not voice their fears?

A criticism of the oped along these lines that appeared on the pages of this blog elicited a cocky, but well-meaning, repartee from Gandhi:

Absolutely delighted and want to tell him that I find his comment as refreshing as a shower in lavender for it cures me almost if not fully of my old old habit of taking myself too seriously and writing as if I am meant to change the world and also that I will be very watchful about not enforcing any pauses through commas and under no circumstances on pain of ostracism for that worst of all effects namely dramatic effect and will assiduously follow the near zero comma if not a zero comma rule and that I would greatly value a meet up and a chat discussing pernicious punctuation and other evils.

It is for very similar reasons that I can’t wait for my copy of Solar Bones to be delivered.

Featured image: An extratropical cyclone over the US midwest, shaped like a comma. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.