Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Comma Chameleon

I came across this comma usage in an AOL story today:

Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California said during an April 22, 2009 hearing on credit card reform conducted by the U.S. House Financial Services Committee …
For over a decade now, I’ve been getting paid to stick commas into passages like that: “ … an April 22, 2009, hearing …” The idea is that commas (among their other jobs) set off parenthetical information. So without a comma after 2009, the lone comma before it severs the first half of the sentence from the last. It’s almost like, if you read it aloud, it would be: “Waters said during an April 22. (Deep breath.) Two thousand nine hearing on credit card reform …”

The second comma makes clear that the first did not indicate a break in the sentence. It was working as part of a pair to set off parenthetical information.

People using “Inc.” almost always leave out the second comma. It’s easy to see why. The first comma could easily be seen as part of the proper name in “ABC Co., Inc.” Whereas a second comma comes at the point at which the name connects to the rest of the sentence. Still, according to us copy editors at least, if you use a comma before “Inc.” you need one after it.

But it seems that the second comma is getting less and less common. The lone comma seen in the AOL News example above seems to be becoming the norm. I’m left wondering whether I should change my mind about the necessity of that second comma and whether soon I’ll be starting every sentence I speak with, “Back in my day …”

P.S. I stole the headline for this piece from a 2006 Boston Herald interview about "Grammar Snobs." So, no props for me! P.P.S. I stole "no props for me" from the Seinfeld Soup Nazi, kinda. So maybe that makes me the Worst Person in the World. P.P.P.S I stole "Worst Person in the World" from Keith Olbermann, but I hope that's understandable, since I'm just a squirrel trying to get a nut ..."

And so on.

P.P.P.P.S. Apologies to Kurt Vonnegut.

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Joel said...

I never did like the first comma (in dates, in particular), let alone the second one. Which is odd, because I otherwise tend to overuse commas.

Keith Olbermann is one of the few things that I miss about cable. There's no way you could be the "worst person in the world," June.

June Casagrande said...

I'm having a weird problem. Ever since I marked as spam a truly spamified Blogger "comment," I keep missing comment notifications. I'm not even seeing them in my spam folder (though that could be my fault). So sorry it took so long to get your comment posted!

Anyhoo, I'm okay with the commas in dates, though I can do without the comma before "Inc."

I've noticed that I overuse commas, too. Then, when I re-read my stuff, I take many out. For me it may be a sort of writer's narcissism. I put in all those commas because I want people to HEAR me, dammit. It's like I'm trying to force a rythm on the reader.

When I come back to something I've written, I often realize that the extra commas aren't exactly a good thing from the reader's perspective. He can get his own rhythm going and the visual mess I create with all those commas doesn't help.

It's like I grow up a little every time I try to edit my own stuff.

Faldone said...

I think that the comma in dates is so well established that to add one after the date would be intrusive. Rather than reading “Waters said during an April 22. (Deep breath.) Two thousand nine hearing on credit card reform …” you'd have something like “Waters said during an April 22, 2009. (Deep breath.) hearing on credit card reform …”

June Casagrande said...

I kind of agree with the intrusive thing. That second comma is a little messy looking. But, to me, the alternative is illogic. Because these commas work similarly to parentheses, leaving off the second one is like writing:

"I bought a dress (it's blue that I plan to wear."

Still, your view seems to be gaining steam and could become (or already be) the more popular choice.


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