Monday, November 17, 2008

New Yorker Comma Curiosities

I noticed recently some rather curious comma choices in the New Yorker. Specifically, its editors seem to prefer to set off with commas prepositional phrases of "in" + a year. They don't do it all the time, but they seem to do it a lot lately. Some examples:

When he died, in 1984, he was remembered mostly for his popular study of multiple-personality disorder, written with Corbett Thigpen, “The Three Faces of Eve.”

After receiving his doctorate, in 1963, and returning to Vancouver, he set about what would be his life’s work.

Few experts understand counterinsurgency and counterterrorism better than this former Australian army officer and anthropology Ph.D, who has advised the American, British, and Australian governments, was one of General Petraeus’s strategic whizzes at the start of the surge, in early 2007, and writes so well that you’d never imagine he’s spent his whole career in government, the military, and academia.

His good looks, charm, and verbal skills—qualities that made him such an effective predator—convinced many in the Tacoma community that he was innocent, up until the time he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, in 1979.

Most editors whose work I see would make those:

"When he died in 1984, he was ..."

"After receiving his doctorate in 1963 and returning to ..."

"... was one of General Patraeus's strategic whizzes at the start of the surge in early 2007 and writes so well ..."

"... he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1979.

Theirs are all valid choices. The writer or editor has a lot of freedom to decide which bits of information are "parenthetical" and thus should be set off with commas. But personally, I suspect this is just another example of the New Yorker thumbing its nose at conventional editing/writing wisdom.

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Mark Murphy said...

Regarding The New Yorker's use of commas:

You might want to check out "The Years with Ross," James Thurber's book about the magazine's founder, Harold Ross, and the magazine's early days.

Thurber (writing in the late 1950s) says the magazine's "overuse of commas, originating in Ross's clarification complex, has become notorious the world over among literary people."

Thurber says a professor once complained to him about this sentence: "After dinner, the men went into the living room."

Thurber explained that "this particular comma was Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up."

Apparently the influence of Ross continues.

Mark Murphy

June Casagrande said...

That's really interesting. I didn't realize the magazine's comma "specialiness" was so storied.

Personally, I'm pretty neutral on whether to use a comma after a short introductory phrase such as "after dinner." Ross has a point on that one. But setting off "in 1978" with commas seems very different -- a clinging (without much justification) to a old, conveniently controversial, and sassy habit.

LL Blackwell said...

Yeah. It's one thing to do it occasionally in order to do the emphasis dance, but all the time? It totally interrupts the flow. Of course, with sentences the length of those contained in the New Yorker, interrupting the flow might be the goal.

Commas are tricky little bastards though.

June Casagrande said...

Well put. It creates too much emphasis where none is intended.

Abigail Johnston said...

I've been puzzled by The New Yorker's use of commas for some time and am glad to have found this site!

In this week's piece about Duke Ellington there are at least two curious examples of commas setting off a bit of info. In one, the setting off of a date made for some confusion as to what event the date referred to; in another, the rest of the sentence (and paragraph) was all about the "set-aside" bit of info, so it was in no way parenthetical.

Does anybody know if The New Yorker has an editorial style guide that one could lay one's hands upon? As an editor myself-- known as The Comma Queen by some whose work I have put a pencil to-- I would be most interested in seeing it.

Abigail Johnston

June Casagrande said...

Good question about their style guide. I'd be interested to see that, too. I'm going to repost your comment as a new post to see if anyone has an answer!


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