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?

Endashes reach out to hyphens…

I confess – I learnt endashes and emdashes only after I became a copy editor. In my previous post, “I have wondered what difference will it make when a reader sees an en dash.” For a very long I doubted if there is any reader – OK, when I say any, I meant any reader who has not published yet (and hence has not come across dashes) – who distinguishes hyphens, endashes, and emdashes. While they may not know these dashes, they intuitively understand the usage of the dashes. They  have seen them as two- or three-hyphens use from the typewriter era.

[For the uninitiated, endash equals the width of an uppercase N; you now know an em dash.]

Endahses and emdashes primarily function as parenthetical dashes. There are many other uses for them, which I’m not going to enumerate here. This post is focussed on endashes coming in to the aid of hyphens in compound adjectives. Hyphens are used to connect compound adjectives such as

a small-truck driver

with the implied meaning that the truck is small. Imagine if the hyphen is not missing:

a small truck driver

The driver may be small, not the truck. Now, you got the point. Consider

acid-synthesizing step

We can spice it up by replacing acid with amino acid, an open compound noun.

amino acid synthesizing step

The term “amino acid synthesizing” is the compound adjective, with “amino acid” modifying “synthesizing”. One way is to use hyphens everywhere as “amino-acid-synthesizing”. However, the custom says that we can leave well-known open compounds without hyphens, as in

amino acid-synthesizing step

It is here the endashes come into play. They replace hyphens here:

amino acid–synthesizing step

So, the use of endashes with open compounds in compound adjectives implies the following:

1. what is to the left of the endash is an open compound noun (so should be read as a unit)

2. that there is an invisible (invincible) hyphen that connects the (here) two words

With less-known open compounds, you may use either adjectives for all or endash as we just saw. Some prefer to call the hyphens in the former “stacked hyphens”.

A nerd and some hyphens

I have wondered what difference will it make when a reader sees an en dash. Will he think that it was some wrongly elongated hyphen, or will she make some educated guess?

When I began as a copy editor, I hardly imagined that hyphens and en dashes are making the lives of so many editors’ difficult. When my colleagues looked at hyphens and dashes bewildered and preplexed, I savoured my tryst with hyphens. For a nerd, what could give more pleasure than saying that I’m skilled at using hyphens when others think that they make their life hell.

My simple idea of hyphens was that they unite. Just that. When I hear hyphens, I think of compound adjectives. But hyphens go beyond compound adjectives. They unite numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine. They connect the fractions such as one-third. With most prefixes, they withdraw themselves for a stronger bonding, as in prebook, but trying to establish their vulnerable presence through such words as post-test and post-transplantation. My publisher’s house style tells me what to do with hyphens, most of the times saying something like “pre- words closed (or hyphenated)”. When I’m decreed to use hyphens with prefixes, I think of preexist and prerequisite. I’m helpless and the house styles help less.

Even when hyphens give way, fusing words and prefixes, they stand in between numbers, proper nouns, and abbreviations on the one hand and other words on the other hand, as in mid-1950s, Chicago-based and non-HL. (Parallelisms are another slightly nerdy thing, but reserved for a later post.)

Oh, and they save you from ambiguities: reserve the table or re-serve the table?

If you thought this is too much, the plot just thickens.

Talking of compound adjectives, the starting point is a compound adjective of just two words: my favourite banana-eating monkey. A similar phrase is English-speaking population. Then there is this English speaking non population, I mean non-English-speaking population. Replace one of the compound adjectives with an open compound, the nerd’s eyes lit up with pleasure. The thought of Monte Carlo-based simulations and post-World War II economic cooperation gives a turn-on.

Unsatiated, the nerd looks for more of guilty pleasures. He creates, sometimes vulgarly artificially, quasi-judicial–quasi-public body and calling-a-spade-a-spade approach.

The nerd has some well-wishers too. They advise him to use en dashes or to rephrase when possible. He gives them a cold shoulder, often with a smirk.

Without realizing that the distance between him and others grows disproportionately to the number of hyphens he uses in his writing.

“Such as” parenthetical phrases

Commas are most probably the tiniest creature that can cause heartbreaks to any copy editor. The simple reason is that they are not solely governed by rules. Arguably, using commas have as many exceptions as there are rules.

Consider such as for example.

The such as phrase may, or may not, take commas based on the context. Compare these two phrases:

Animals such as lion and tiger are ferocious predators.

Wild animals, such as lion and tiger, are generally ferocious.

In the first example, the phrase such as lion and tiger acts as a restrictive phrase, identifying the characteristics of Animals. However, in the second sentence, it only serves as an example, hence not essential for the meaning of the sentence. So the phrase is parenthetical in the second example and requires commas to separate them.

Finding out whether the such as phrase is essential or not follows the same logic for identifying relative clauses as restrictive or nonrestrictive: lift off the phrase and see whether the sentence conveys the same meaning. If so, the phrase is parenthetical and needs comma(s). Else, the phrase is defining and no commas to be used.

Does ET have a copydesk?

Sorry to be blunt, but that was the first question that came to my mind after reading this article in the Economic Times yesterday.

I’m complaining not about the use – rather the misuse – of commas in the text, nor about the sloppy writing. I’m startled by the obvious errors made in the copy. You need samples, right? Here they go:

In an effort to address this situation, the CABE has constituted a committee for assessment and implementation of the comprehensive and continuous evaluation in the contest of the no detention provision of the RTE Act.

“At the stage at which are in at present, we cannot have a system that has no evaluation,” Shahi said.

He explained that the private schools have more evaluation under the comprehensive and continuous evaluation (CCE) system, while children government schools are not evaluated at all.

I almost stopped reading, but went on. I stopped reading when I came across this sentence:

“parents are no longer being strict with the children to study as there is no test in which to score high marks or pass and no student can be detained.”

I just cannot see a sentence beginning with a lowercase letter.

Okay, you may want to give them a chance because the copy was written hastily to publish online. Wrong. The time of publication was shown as 7 Jun, 2012, 08.26AM IST.

The serial semicolons

If you are a copyeditor, I’m sure you know serial commas, aka Oxford comma. That’s the comma that precedes the last element in series as in

He loves reading, editing, teaching, and leading the team.

Yes, that one that follows “teaching”.

You as well know that serial comma is predominantly the style followed in US English.

While commas are used to separate items in a list, semicolons are also used to separate such items. This is when one or more of the list items have a comma already, as in

The participants of the meeting were Robert Langdon, the Manager; Sydney Sheldon, the Senior Manager; and Chandilyan, the Chairman.

This semicolon — the one following “the Senior Manager” — is called a serial semicolon, for obvious reasons.

But please remember, this “serial semicolon” is not a preference. Please use the serial semicolon irrespective of whether you follow serial comma. In other words,

Even if you don’t follow serial comma, when needed feel free to use a serial semicolon.