Re. Comma preferences?

Subject: Re. Comma preferences?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 24 May 2000 08:56:14 -0400

Sierra Godfrey recalls << instructor in my technical editing class
saying that sometimes commas were a matter of personal preference. I've
always been of the opinion that if you say a sentence outloud and your tone
implies a comma, then the written version should have a comma.>>

Your instructor was correct, but the rule of thumb applies better in fiction
than in technical writing, since comma use is as much a stylistic as a
grammatical issue in fiction. The techwhirler tie-in for this subject is
that the comma is often necessary for clarity, particularly in lists, and
adding one to a list almost never reduces clarity. The classic example of
this is "I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand[,] and God". Without the
bracketed comma, this could mean that your parents are Ayn Rand and God;
with the comma, you're thanking four separate people (two parents, Ayn, and
God). I don't have a technical example handy, but I commonly have to fix
this problem when the last two items of a list could be misconstrued as
being examples of the single item that begins the list rather than
independant examples.

<<There is no need to separate the source from this mounting plate, as the
assembly will be replaced as a whole.>>

Here, the comma isn't necessary, but it is helpful. The role of the comma in
such a sentence is to indicate the end of a clause or phrase (i.e., "stop
and absorb these words because they provide the context; once you understand
this, you can proceed to find out why that context is important or what
happens in that context").

<<One engineer here feels it is not, but I like it there because it sounds

That engineer, like many of us, was probably taught English by a graduate of
the "open punctuation" movement from early in the 20th century. That
movement (as I understand it) arose to combat the overelaborately dense
punctuation of the previous century, and as such, was a Good Thing. But like
any rule of thumb applied dogmatically, it misleads about as often as it
helps. You probably feel that it sounds better because the comma serves an
important cognitive role by helping you to grasp the meaning of the
sentence. That being the case, I recommend using this type of comma for such
phrases. Shorter or simpler introductory clauses don't benefit as much from
the comma, but I'd hesitate to propose a rigid rule of thumb for deciding
when the comma is necessary. Often, if you only had one noun ("source" or
"mounting plate" but not both) and a verb that didn't express a relationship
between two nouns (e.g., an intransitive), there'd be a stronger argument
for omitting the comma. Consider, for example, "Press the Return key, to
begin printing"; here, the comma is both unnecessary and disruptive.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

"Technical writing... requires understanding the audience, understanding
what activities the user wants to accomplish, and translating the often
idiosyncratic and unplanned design into something that appears to make
sense."--Donald Norman, The Invisible Computer

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