Combatting Comma Clumsiness
In a May 1 National Review Online story, “The Right Rx,” Republican presidential candidate John McCain asserts that “choice and competition are indispensible [sic] to real reform that brings costs down and broadens access while maintaining quality.”
McCain cites numerous obstacles to an ideal balance of health-care cost, access, and quality. Among them are state-specific insurance regulations and markets that “prevent the best companies, with the best plans and lowest prices, from making their product available to any American who wants it…. We need to break down these barriers to competition, innovation and excellence, with the goal of establishing a national market to make the best practices and lowest prices available to every person in every state.”
The indispensable comma
My goal, as a writer and editor, is clarity. The best writing communicates clearly; it is rhythmic, with a pleasing cadence; and it progresses fluidly from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, point to point. I don’t want the reader to have to stop and reexamine a phrase, uncertain about its meaning or about how it relates to the context.
If these criteria are met, I don’t grumble about the little things. If I were editing Senator McCain’s text, I might have suggested replacing “making their product available to any American who wants it” with “making their products available to any Americans who want them,” but I wouldn’t have insisted on it.
The final sentence in the second paragraph above, however—the one that begins, “McCain cites numerous obstacles…”—contains a Problematic Parenthetical Phrase that demonstrates the utility of our old friend the Harvard comma.
What’s a parenthetical phrase?
Parenthetical information can be removed from a sentence without making the sentence incomprehensible. Often, parenthetical information is enclosed, logically enough, in parentheses: “I went to a production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville with my family (Granny Hilda and Aunt Suzette), and we left at intermission.”
You can flag parenthetical information in two other ways: with em dashes (the long ones, which take up the same amount of space as a typeset m) and with commas. In all cases—whether you use parentheses, dashes, or commas—the punctuation must set off the parenthetical information by appearing at the beginning and the end.
So the following are, strictly speaking, correct:
1. I went to a movie with my family (Hilda and Suzette), and we left after ten minutes.
2. I went to a movie with my family—Hilda and Suzette—and we left after ten minutes.
3. I went to a movie with my family, Hilda and Suzette, and we left after ten minutes.
The third example is problematic because fewer and fewer writers typically use the so-called Harvard comma—the comma that precedes the last item in a series. So example number 3 could mean one of two things: that the writer was accompanied by his family plus nonfamily members Hilda and Suzette, or that the writer was accompanied by his family, which consisted of Hilda and Suzette.
Similarly, Senator McCain’s imperative about breaking down barriers could be understood in two very different ways: (1) that the senator wants to “break down… barriers to competition” and that these barriers are, parenthetically, “innovation and excellence”; or (2) that he wants to “break down… barriers to competition,” barriers to innovation, and barriers to excellence.
The confusion, such as it is, wouldn’t arise if the senator had inserted, or an editor had not deleted, that small and sadly undervalued Harvard comma. The sentence “We need to break down these barriers to competition, innovation, and excellence…” —note the Harvard comma after innovation—leaves no doubt that competition, innovation, and excellence are fine things, according to Senator McCain, and that the barriers have got to go.
Of course, John McCain graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, where the esoteric mysteries of punctuation were, at a guess, of minor interest to the future naval aviator. And that, I suppose, is just as well.
Find answers to your writing questions in Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell.
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