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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One of my former jobs was to introduce new faculty members in a college newsletter. At least half of each introduction consisted of the person’s educational attainments, teaching awards, innumerable publications, and so forth. The dean insisted that the entire introduction be in narrative format, so I was constantly inventing new ways to say, “After earning his Master of Science degree at Prestigious University, he received a Ph.D. from Even More Prestigious University, where he continued to teach until joining the faculty of Backwater University,” and so forth.
When you are conveying data, as above, the data belong in a list — which may be in paragraph format or in the usual “list format,” one item under another. List format has the advantage of breaking up daunting blocks of text.
Either way, items in a list should be parallel (similar in type and construction).
Yes: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback riding, and making crank phone calls. [All items in the list are gerunds or gerund phrases.]
No: Our powerful software is flexible, intuitive, easy-to-use and integrates seamlessly with your other tools.
No: Artemis’s Labrador retriever, Margaret, had several jobs in the household:
1. She licked Artemis’s face when he was sad.
2. She brought Artemis his pipe and slippers every evening.
3. Barking at intruders.
No: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback-riding, and the opera.
Yes: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback-riding, and going to the opera.
About the Harvard Comma, or the Oxford Comma, or whatever you want to call the comma that belongs before the final item in a series
I’m for it. Associated Press style omits it. Here’s an example, followed by my rationale:
With Harvard Comma: I’d like syrup, guacamole, and peanut butter on my eggs, please.
Without Harvard Comma: I’d like syrup, guacamole and peanut butter on my eggs, please.
1. When you say it out loud, your voice pauses after guacamole. One of the purposes of a comma is to signal such a pause. Be courteous to your readers: Let them go with the flow of text that simulates natural speech.
2. Often the items in a series are phrases rather than single words. In complex sentences, omitting the final comma can muddy the meaning, causing the reader to reexamine the sentence or stop reading altogether. I know what you’re going to say: If the sentence is that complex, it should be recast. Here’s what I say: Go soak your head.
3. Even in short sentences or phrases, omitting the Harvard comma can be all but fatal, as in the famous (possibly apocryphal) book dedication “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
Adapted from Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell
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