Comma, the Commander

If you are an editor, you know the power of comma. If you are not, ask editors about it; they will talk about it for days. Comma is the punctuation equivalent of Lord Krishna, taking various incarnations to decimate the satans of the reading and writing world, helping thwart the evil. To paraphrase Bhagavat Gita,

Whenever there is a decay of comprehensibility and growth of incongruity, to protect the reader, to destroy the wicked, the Comma manifests itself, through the pages.

Have you ever ruminated the roles a comma can play? To separate, to connect, to help emphasize, to introduce, to substitute, and what not. The comma is omnipotent and omnipresent. Comma is the Krishna of the world of words, the commander of us mortal editor Arjuns who wage an everyday Kurukshetra against the evil of loss-of-meaning, the Incomprehensibility.

Okay, before you think that I’m rambling, I’ll tell you why.

Let’s begin with the simplest: The primary use of commas is in lists, with an option to use the serial comma a.k.a. the Oxford comma.

Commas are used to separate independent clauses with coordinating conjunctions, to separate parenthetical phrases or clauses, and to separate a word or phrase for emphasis.

Commas are used to introduce as after introductory phrases or to introduce other elements, such as equations and quotations

Commas are used to leave some trailing thoughts, giving the reader some more food for thought.

Commas can do so many other errands: these errands are so very mechanistic, not warranting a place here. For example, they are added after abbreviations such as “e.g.” in American English, separate the date and the year – again, in American English – and so on.

But what is more alluring to me is providing us with the most sophisticated punctuation weaponry, commandeering the editing war with ease.

Did you notice that for each of the roles listed above, there are alternative punctuation marks? Come, let’s explore.

One most frequent appearance of commas is to separate items in a list. What if things get complicated? What if the items of the list themselves are lists? What if all or some of the list items already have commas? Will it not look like a comma litter? If only there is a better way…

There is. In the form of a semicolon. Semicolons separate list items if the list items either have internal commas or are lists within lists. They easily stand in the shoes of commas. Oh, yeah, there is that serial semicolon, too.

A second instance where comma is most needed is to separate parenthetical elements. These can be phrases, clauses (especially non-defining relative clauses), appositives, and the like. Depending on the importance of the parenthetical element, the pair of commas that separate them can be replaced either by a pair of parentheses or by a pair of parenthetical dashes. The unimportant or lesser important details find shelter within a pair of parentheses; however, if the phrase needs to be emphasized, a pair of dashes are needed.

This choice can sometimes be obvious: I can immediately think of manufacturer details in the Methods section of scientific articles, which take parentheses. Sometimes it may not: At the beginning of this paragraph, I initially tried to enclose the phrase “especially non-defining relative clauses” within dashes. However, I ended up with parentheses as the second dash would clash with the separator comma; the dash being  stronger would swallow the comma, but would be inadequate to express the end of the list item. So I decided the phrase can go within the parentheses, perhaps with some loss of emphasis.

Also of noteworthy is the fact that the parentheses or dashes cannot replace commas in all of these cases. Think of a non-defining relative clauses: I can hardly imagine dashes replacing them. Parentheses? Possible.

Where else commas are more frequent? Yeah, they appear before the coordinating conjunction connecting two independent clauses. Can something else replace commas here? You said it right; the semicolons can, of course also removing the conjunction. You already know the subtle difference between the two choices. This post has examples of semicolon use when connecting two independent clauses.

Okay, have you identified them? Can we move on? Commas sometimes are used to introduce other elements, especially display quotes and mathematical equations. Of course as introductory commas, they are also used to introduce clauses. They are used to introduce inline quotes and direct speech. Many of these functions can well be played by colons. Colons are expert in introducing others.  They are preferred over commas to introduce display items (lists, quotations and equations) – colon is the undisputed king here.

Other places where commas cannot be used but only colons can be are when an independent clause is introduced to paraphrase or to add further meaning to an earlier clause. Sorry, Commander. Please step out.

So in many instances, commas can be replaced to enhance clarity and readability, with semicolons, colons, parentheses, and dashes being the other choice.

Are commas indisputable somewhere?

They are. No other punctuation can replace commas after introductory phrases. You have some trailing thought to add after; can you think of anything other than commas? Nay. Perhaps a dash, but that sits there pretty artificially, doesn’t it?

Do you agree with me that commas are the commander of the punctuation weaponry?

Setting Up MS Word for Editing – Global

Setting up MS Word for editing is akin to creating a perfect ambiance in the office (or home office) or ensuring good ergonomics in the workplace. Decluttering the desktop – both the traditional one and that of the computer – is another essential need. We editors use predominantly work with MS Word, don’t we? Then shouldn’t we aim at maximizing the pleasure component of editing by removing the possible pain associated with editing using Word?

There are two ways of doing this: Ensuring a good interaction between us and Word, irrespective of the project, and ensuring a good project-based interaction.

This piece will look at the former. I safely assume that most of us work with Word 2007 or 2010. Frankly, I’ve not worked with a higher version. So there may be some changes to what I say here, but things will be more or less the same.

Viewing a document

The first thing that you do when you open a document is – let me say with the risk of being so naïve – to see it, to “view” it. Word offers more than one ways of viewing a document. In the 2007 edition there are five ways of viewing a document.

MS Word View options
Part of status bar showing the various view options

A rookie Word user is more familiar with the Print Layout. MS Word is a WYSIWYG programme, meaning you get what you see (OK, it is what you see is what you get). So when you print a page from this layout, you exactly get what you see on the screen. Draft view is preferred by editors as it ensures that the focus is on the content rather than on the layout. In fact, you will not see some elements that you see in Print Layout. However, you can zoom in at the same time wrapping the text and see them big. You can also see the style elements. (By default, the style area width is set to zero and so you do not see the style area; the width can be adjusted to make the style area visible.) Full Screen Reading is for readers. There are no distractions; the readers read page after page of content. Outline view is for rearrangement of content. And finally, Web Layout – as the name implies – is how the document will look like as a Web page, well not exactly, but more or less.

So as you see, Word offers different layouts for different purposes: for authors, Print Layout and Outline view; for editors, Draft view (I’ve to agree that there are editors who prefer Print Layout); Outline for the typesetter (well, Word is no longer a primary typesetting engine, but small-time authors can still self-publish using Word); and Web Layout if you want to save the Word document as a Web page.

Customizing the status bar

Your editing experience has taught that it is not always that you begin and complete a project in one go. And every project of yours has come with scores of idiosyncrasies – choice of spelling, choice of using a serial comma, hyphenation preferences and so on. You need to remember certain statuses as well, like track changes and spell check. It would be handy if you can review these every time you start working on a document after break. The status bar is for you.

Customize Status Bar
Customizing status bar in MS Word

The status bar is the thin ribbon at the bottom of the screen but above the Taskbar. By default, you see the page count and the number of the current page you are in; as you write, you can see that a pen keeps writing on a notebook; and word count is made. This status bar is customizable – right click anywhere on the status bar, you will see the popup menu to customize the status bar. The following are handy status updates that you would need while editing:

  • Page information – to tell you where you are in a document. I periodically watch this space to check whether I’ll be able to complete editing the document as estimated
  • Word count – are handy when you calculate standard pages as constituting a fixed number of words rather than as manuscript pages
  • Spelling and grammar check – to know whether there are spelling or grammar errors
  • Language – to prompt us about the choice of language (British/American/Australian etc.) when we resume editing after a break
  • Track changes – to check whether track changes is enabled or disabled
  • Caps lock – to check whether caps lock is enabled or disabled.

There are many other. You may add as you need them.

Choosing from the display options

Display options
Display options in MS Word

Finally the display options. You need to click on the Word Options (by clicking on the Office Button at the top left corner of your document) and select Display on the left hand side menu. Under “Always show these formatting marks on the screen”, select whichever you need. Note that all these are nonprint characters, meaning you don’t get to see them when you print a page.

Tab – is needed when you work with tables and indents of paragraphs. Sometimes, we prefer to set columns of text not as tables; tabs are helpful by fixing uniform space between columns

Spaces – if the text is justified, sometimes you may not “see” the spaces between words. Enabling this feature will show a dot between words. A dot corresponds to one single space.

Paragraph marks – to mark the end of a paragraph

Hidden text – to show, as the name suggests, the hidden text

Working with spaces is initially annoying; however, once you are used to seeing them, it becomes difficult to work without them.


How do you customize Word for editing? Share your ideas so all of us are benefitted.

Phantasmagorically experiencing editing

“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced,” quipped John Keats. When we experience, the learning becomes permanent like etching on a stone. We can relive the experience because we remember the finest details of the experience. And yeah, experiences shape us.

My first editing project was, and has been, a great editing experience and taught me the most important learning about editing – rules are there to guide us but rules are not everything. Continue reading

misplaced nodifier

A WhatsApp conversation.

U: “What is the English translation of போர்க்கால அடிப்படை?”

S: “War footing”

U: “Thanks, S. Is this a noun?”

S: “Welcome”

U: “Adjective?”

S: “Yes”

On a war footing


Action taken on a war footing

U: “Great”

M: “Sorry to differ, S. War footing is a noun. The fact that an article is used with the word in your example is an indication”

S: “Yes, as in a war footing

“But in toto. On a war footing?

M: “Yes, that’s an adverbial phrase.”

S: “It’s an adverbial. That’s what I meant.”

M: “As U. asked for the noun, I thought I’ll clarify that point.”

S: “I had acknowledged it was a noun too.”

M: “Oh, I saw your yes after the question ‘Adjective?'”

S: “That crept in. I answered for the noun.”

U: “Yes, it’s coz of the yes.”

M: “Oh, yeah, the curious case of a misplaced nodifier.”

More thoughts on since vs. because. Or, Since you read my previous post…

In my previous post I talked about the use of since and because and how they are different or same. This piece is more a hangover due to the previous post. After having thought and talked about the grammar side of since vs. because, I still felt the previous post was not complete. While I talked more about the perfect tenses, object of since, and other things, I also realized that this is not how I approached the conundrum while editing. So do many seasoned editors. And sometimes even when the customer’s specification was not to change since to because, I did make a change; it’s more of a feel than of the grammar. Then there was a reflection on this question: Why did I change? Was it out of habit? Perhaps not, because there were many instances where since was not disturbed. In fact, to me the word since has more charm than because. Try it out yourself: write sentences with since and because as conjunctions and read the sentences aloud. The sentence with since is music to ears, isn’t it? It is, or it may not. Whatever be the preference, is there any logic behind the choice of these words? It looks like there is. Google helped and here is my understanding on this dubious pair of words.

As you started digging deeper, you realize that there is this feeble as to mean the same thing and to add to the confusion. So it is not just the choice between two words now, but between three words. The consolation comes from the fact that the choice of as is not as complex as the other two words.

One of the criteria to choose between the three, according to the online Cambridge dictionary, is how formal your writing is. Because is less formal than the other two. Personally, as sounds more colloquial, let alone more formal.

Another criterion is the writer’s emphasis. As conjunctions these words provide reason-clauses. There is an action, and there is a reason. The choice of the word is based on which is emphasized, the main clause or the subordinating reason-clause. If the emphasis is on the reason, use a because-clause. If the emphasis is on the action, use since or as.

A caveat. because and because of are not the same. Because, as we have talked so frequently now, is a conjunction; because of is a prepositional phrase. Bearing the risk of being naive, let me state that we cannot replace because with since in the latter case.

There is another phrase that creates nuisance to editors: due to. But let that be reserved for a later occasion.

What is your take? Do you have any peeves on the choice between these words?

Since when since has been replaced by because? Or, to sin(ce) or not to sin(ce)?

The moment you started typing since, Google will suggest since vs because. Such is the power of this pair of words. The confusion stems from the fact that since and because are interchangeable, though not always. In fact, there is no confusion most of the times. Perhaps people were asked to clarify when there was ambiguity. As in most of the stories, these exceptions became the norm and changing since to because to express reasoning was always expected.
Now, why is the confusion? Because since can be an adverb, preposition, or a conjunction; because is only a conjunction. As you can see, as the only place where these two cross their lives is as conjunctions. So in order to understand the “rule”, let’s rule out the other two possibilities: being an adverb or preposition. Let’s consider the following sentences:

It has been raining incessantly since Diwali eve.

The rain started on Diwali eve and we haven’t stepped out of home since.

You can easily find that since is a preposition in the first sentence; there is an object of preposition (Diwali eve). Since as an adverb will not have one. You may also have noted that the object of the preposition since is the answer to the question “when”? Some more examples with since as a preposition:

We haven’t partied since your birthday party. (Since when? Since your birthday party)

The industry has continuously reinvented itself since the market slump. (Since when? Since the market slump)

Since as an adverb:

The original building has long since (= long before now) been demolished. (from Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary)

There is no “since when?” here.

A point worthy of note is, since is associated with perfect tense in both these cases. Have you noticed it: has been raining, haven’t stepped out, haven’t partied, has reinvented, has been demolished?

So with these constructions you need two points of time, to denote a duration. The temporal references can both be in the past or beginning in the past extending till the present time.

Now to the central point of our discussion: since as a conjunction, a subordinating conjunction at that. By definition, then, since introduces a subordinate clause. The moment you see a subordinate clause following since you know that the function is as a conjunction, not otherwise. Once again, let’s consider a pair of sentences with since  as a conjunction to understand when it can mean because:

Since it rained on Diwali eve, this Diwali was far less enthusiastic, at least on the Diwali day. However, people have celebrated with fervour since it stopped raining.

Noting that the first sentence doesn’t have a perfect/simple present tense combination, you can conclude that since in the first case reasons why Diwali was far less enthusiastic. By a similar logic, since in the second sentence denotes a point of time in the past. But the conclusion one can drawn from the second sentence is not as clear as the first one. The context helps then.

Some points to ponder when you come across since in a sentence:

  1. If what follows since is a phrase and if an answer to the question “Since when?” exists, then since is a preposition. The answer is the object of the preposition.
  2. If what follows since is not a clause and there is no answer to the question “Since when?”, since is an adverb.
  3. If the since-clause is written in perfect tense and answers the question “Since when?”, since is a conjunction denoting a point of time.
  4. If the since-clause is written in a tense other than perfect tense and answers the question “Why?”, since is a conjunction and can be safely replaced with because.
  5. If the since-clause is written in perfect tense and answers both questions “Since when?” and “Why?”, god save you. Look for some clue from the context.