Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Wicked Which of the Stab in the Dark, or Don't Freak Out

Technicalities like these are what distinguishes editors among editors. In this article, Stan Carey discusses seldom-noticed differences between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses that often cause nervous writers of English to panic and add distracting punctuation right in the middle of a perfectly good sentence. Note the delicate torture involved in the victimization inflicted by a Guy de Maupassant translation: "I had to reread the sentence to parse it properly, this time ignoring the misleading comma."

Okay, that was a little smarmy, but I need you to know that I take my jesting very seriously. Also, I just finished watching Rick Alverson's The Comedy, and I'm a bit desperate to remind myself I have volumes more wit than that Tim and Eric crew in the way stock characters must feel obligated to pinch themselves when unrealistic events occur.

Let's take a moment to remind ourselves that even the ultra-liberal of grammarians are capable of writing and publishing large texts that are perfectly understandable to their readers. Gertrude Stein relentlessly crushed repetitive circles of words into thousand page books while amassing a plentitude of admirers and the legacy of a thought leader, and in an interview from the later years of her life, she answered a question about her tendencies toward commas thus:

"What does a comma do. 
"I have refused them so often and left the [sic] out so much and did without them so continually that I have come finally to be indifferent to them. I do not now care whether you put them in or not but for a long time I felt very definitely about them and would have nothing to do with them. 
"As I say commas are servile and they have no life of their own, and their use is not a use, it is a way of replacing one’s own interest and I do decidedly like to like my own interest my own interest in what I am doing. A comma by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it and to me for many years and I still do feel that way about it only now I do not pay as much attention to them, the use of them was positively degrading . . . 
"And what does a comma do, a comma does nothing but make easy a thing that if you like it enough is easy enough without the comma. A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it and the comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. It is not like stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath. . . . The longer, the more complicated the sentence the greater the number of the same kinds of words I had following one after another, the more the very more I had of them the more I felt the passionate need of their taking care of themselves by themselves and not helping them, and thereby enfeebling them by putting in a comma."
 —Gertrude Stein, Lectures In America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985) 214-222. <http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/works/stein.pdf >
So, now that we've all shaken our realities enough to see that the world doesn't end if you don't put a comma you're not sure is necessary in a sentence you're not writing for a teacher who grades primarily on a written grammar you won't really need much anyway unless you're a professional editor, in which case you should know the rules of grammar well enough to not be so nervous about how to use them.

In less ranty words: Don't worry so much. Write what's there to be written, and pass the corrections off to someone who's read a lot about it. If you suspect you may be misusing grammar, hire an editor before you publish your book. That way you won't have to worry about making people like Mr. Carey and me misconstrue your meanings so often.


  1. I never realized how useless commas were until I read that. Thank you.