Commas & Quotes: responses

Subject: Commas & Quotes: responses
From: Gary Merrill <merrill -at- HYPERION -dot- PDIAL -dot- INTERPATH -dot- NET>
Date: Sat, 13 Jan 1996 02:40:25 GMT

I thought I would batch up some responses to contributions to
this thread. It doesn t seem to have run its course completely
just yet, but the dust does seem to have settled.

I don t think I ever did get much of an answer to my original
question -- except that some seem to feel that comma splicing is
acceptable if the reader knows what you mean . More on this

I have, of course, looked in both Strunk and White and its
companion _The Elements of Grammar_ , by Margaret Shertzer.
These are valuable and familiar reference sources, but I m afraid
I regard neither as complete or definitive. (In fact, I am frequently
disappointed in their brevity and imprecision.) In this case, neither
is particularly helpful (except to serve as the basis of a violent argument
between my wife and me). Neither, in fact, even mentions the concept
of a conjunctive adverb -- certainly a symptom of incompleteness itself.

The book I have come to rely upon over the years for matters grammatical
(aside from Fowler s, of course) is the _Harbrace College Handbook_.
Concerning the original question of comma splicing, Harbrace is *quite*
explicit (and adament!): you shall not do it. It *specifically* warns
against splicing in the case of dropping a conjunction before a conjunctive
adverb, and covers this in two separate sections. My wife has another old
grammar book in her office (one which I bought years ago, but which I
cannot seem to hang onto!). I forget it s title and author, but it too is
explicit in the same manner as Harbrace. The conclusion then seems to
be that at least in those sources which care to deal with the subject, splicing
of this sort is frowned upon.

Strunk and White gives as an exception to the semicolon rule:

Man proposes, God disposes.

which surely is no worse than

Man proposes, then God disposes.

They allow such things in the case that the clauses are short and alike in
form, or when the tone of the sentence is easy and conversational. I take
this to excluse the class of examples (and the context) I had in mind when
I started all this. (I can do this at least because it is my mind that the
class was conjured in. If I had to give a formal characterization of that
class and distinguish it from the above examples, I believe I could. But
it would take some time and effort.)

And now some responses to some responses ...

Tammy Sudol writes:

>P.S. You may not like my comma placement, but I think you understand
>exactly what I'm trying to say. ; )

And Susan Gallagher suggests the same in saying

> As far as the comma spice examples are concerned, "and then" seems
> redundant and wordy to me. I'd remove the "and". Otherwise, as long
> as the sentence conveys the point effectively, it's ok.

I have heard the you know what I mean argument many times
from students. Whenever I hear a writer employ it I expect also to
hear a peal of thunder as the writer is consumed in a pillar of fire.
The primary point of linguistic conventions is to facilitate communication.
(Some might be interested in taking a look at David Lewis s _Convention_
in this regard. As I recall, it does not have enough formal semantics in it
to deter the non-specialist.) The only assurance the writer has that the reader
*will* understand is that they both share and use the same conventions.
If we are willing to take a loose attitude towards conventions of this sort,
we may in fact end up with prose that people will understand -- but maybe
not. And even then, the result either could be difficult to read or
might disrupt the smooth flow of comprehension. For example:

We were walking quietly through the woods when suddenly
we were attacked by two beers.

John walked into the pub and said, Bartender! A bier for

Now you know what I *mean*, don t you? The same can be demonstrated
with respect to grammatical conventions. I don t think a writer should
*ever* resort to the you know what I mean argument in defending
questionable spelling or grammar. I could put this more strongly, but some
folks would be offended.

Richard Mateosian writes:

>> First select "Edit", and then "Cut".

> Not OK, unless "Cut" has suddenly become a verb.

Right. I stand corrected.

>> First select "Edit", then select "Cut".

> If you feel like being formal, change the comma to a semicolon, but the
> comma splice is fine in sentences like this. ...RM

This isn t a matter of *feeling* like being formal. It certainly is no better
than the example you classify as Not OK, unless then has suddenly
become a conjunction.

>> First select "Edit", and then "Cut".

Brad Barnes suggests:

> Why even put a comma in the example above? You have two objects sharing one
> verb.

> When I get confused about commas, I reduce the sentence to its basic elements
> before I analyse it. I remove any adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional
> phrases, for example:

> Select Edit and Cut.

> Clearly, no commas are needed here. Why would commas belong in the example
> above?

You have reduced the sentence to one with a different structure and
meaning. The First is all important. So is the then . (This was observed
by another poster as well.)

Wolf Lahti attempts to make a distincition (itself somewhat obscure)
between parsing logically and following a stylistic convention:

>> Whether punctuation falls outside or within the quote marks depends on
>> whether you are parsing logically or following a stylistic convention. Even
>> logic, though, can be carried to extremes, as in

>> The question Mark asked was, "How do we get this sytem on line?".

>> Silly, isn't it?

No -- not at all. I don t think it is nearly as silly as the formally correct

The question Mark asked was, "How do we get this sytem on line?"

which ends with a quotation mark. And the set of grammar rules that would
codify such practice are simultaneously clearer and shorter than the
standard ones. (But you have to remember that I was trained as and worked
as a logician. Too bad Montague was murdered before he could complete
his program of formalizing English.)

From Bill Sullivan:

> I would reject the use of quotation marks, but if you must use them I
> would put them outside the punctuation if the manual is for use in the
> US by ordinary citizens with family values. In other countries and in
> writing for long-hair scientists, it could be the other way around.

I don t know about long-hair scientists in general, but this certainly
would not be true for mathematicians and logicians.

Gary Merrill

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