So You Need to Use a Comma

People freak out about commas.  Please don’t. Yes, commas are hella confusing (the Chicago Manual of Style dedicates 59 distinct sub-sections to them, and even then there is ambiguity and opinion and wiggle room leftover), but knowing these four little things will almost entirely solve your comma problems.

1. The “Oxford”/”serial” Comma

This is technically the “list” comma: When you give a list, you put commas between individual items.  E.g.,:

Go to the store and get eggs, pineapple, a ’57 Chevy, and enlightenment.

N.B. that the last comma (which I’ve put in red) is disputed; that lil fella is an “Oxford comma”.  Some folks say it’s unnecessary (including, at least at one time, the AP Style Guide), preferring:

Go to the store and get eggs, pineapple, a ’57 Chevy and enlightenment.

But this can lead to hilarious ambiguity, such as this oft-quoted (and probably apocryphal) book dedication sorely in need of an Oxford comma:

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God

—or this actual and verified sentence published in the Times of London a few years back:

Nelson Mandela was a highly accomplished man.
Nelson Mandela was a highly accomplished man.

FYI, serial commas apply to lists of adjectives, too:

You mean that fat, red, flabby car?  It’s mine.  Why?

2. The “if, then” Comma

“If . . ., then . . .” statements need commas:

If you don’t cut it the fuck out, then I’m going to freak the fuck out.

Where this one tricks people is that we often omit the then in an “if, then” statement—nonetheless, we still need the comma:

If you don’t cut it the fuck out, I’m going to freak the fuck out.

3. “That/which” commas

Rule of Thumb: “that” is almost never preceded  by a comma, while a standalone “which” is almost always preceded by a comma:

You know that dog I hired?  Turns out he has no idea how to use Excel, which is super annoying.

(So what is a non-standalone “which”?  “Which” used in a phrase like “that which” or “in which”—in those cases, you don’t stick a comma before the “which,” because that would muck up the phrase.)

4. Commas by Ear

There are a ton of other commas (“parenthetical commas,” “conjunction commas,” “direct address commas,” etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam)—fortunately, there’s an easy way to figure out where to put them without learning a ton of new rules. Here’s the trick:

Commas indicate places where you take a brief pause when saying something.

So, there’s a really easy way to get your commas right most of the time:

Read it aloud; if there’s a place where you naturally take a half-pause or shift volume, then stick a comma there. If you don’t pause, then strike the comma—unless it’s one of the three situations listed above.  

For example, say:

Dave <pause> why did you say that?

That pause is the direct address comma:

Davewhy did you say that?

Or try:

Did you know that Nate <pause> the terrible drunk in my carpool <pause> is marrying my sister?

That’s the parenthetical comma:

Did you know that Nate, the terrible drunk in my carpool, is marrying my sister?

This fourth rule is the golden rule, since most of the first three types of commas are also marked in speech by a pause or volume/tone shift—but sometimes those commas can be subtle to the ear, which is why it’s worth knowing the first three rules. Rule #4 will keep you covered 90% of the time, while Rules #1–3 will help you catch the tricky 10%  

We’re done here. Go forth, my children, and sin no more.

(Want more details?  Start with the Purdue Owl on Commas, and then move on to the Chicago Manual of Style, if need be.)

Maybe Just Don’t Be a Dick About Grammar?

This is a little video about dropping the pretensions and just returning to using “They/Them” as the singular non-gendered pronoun.  It’s a fun video, but the Big Picture is this:

English is a fantastically error-tolerant language.  You can construct fantastically agrammatical sentences and still be sufficiently understood to get things done.  Optimizing around tiny matters of correctness (e.g., “unique can never take a modifier,” “never end a sentence with a preposition,” and so on) usually fails to bring any substantive increase in the clarity of your speech or writing. Insisting that others do so as well–especially when there is no legitimate confusion created by their chosen construction–usually means you are acting like a classist dickweed (plausibly because you are one).

THE TAKEAWAY: At best, perfect “grammatical correctness”—like taking a good long shit—is (and should be) an entirely private pleasure.  It’s not for polite conversation among civilized people like you and me.

“GOING TO, HAVE TO, NEED TO, WANT TO”—The Little Things That Matter a Lot

What with the news being what it’s been this last year or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about grammatical constructions (like the one Bouie highlights here)—which abruptly reminded me of this article I read a couple years ago by Arika Okrent: “Four Changes to English So Subtle We Hardly Notice They’re Happening.”

It’s pretty noticeable that words like “shall” and “ought” are on the way out, but “will,” “should,” and “can” are doing just fine. There are other members of this helping verb club though, and they have been on a steep climb this century. “Going to,” “have to,” “need to,” and “want to” cover some of the same meaning territory as the other modal verbs. They first took hold in casual speech and have enjoyed a big increase in print in recent decades.

(FYI: Okrent also wrote a really neat book on created languages that includes a healthy section in Klingon. The whole thing is fascinating.)

I’m pretty interested in the rhetorical (and psycho-social) significance of “will/should/can” vs. “going to/have to/need to/want to.”  E.g., If I say “I will drive,” I’m both stating what will happen in the future, and implying my ownership of the act.  I’m gonna drive, and I wanna drive.  “Should” both softens the likelihood (evidenced in the fact that you can tag “—but probably won’t” onto the statement without sounding totally nuts) and softens the commitment (implying that I can do it, but likely would rather not).  “Can” is neutral with intent (I can do it, but I’m cool with letting someone else do it), and likelihood (since I’m obviously leaving it open for someone who’d rather drive to speak up).

Meanwhile, the “going/have/need/want to” forms seem to shift the question away from the likelihood of who shall do what, and more to the emotional timbre of the doing of the thing.  “I want to drive” clearly speaks to my intent to drive, and “I have to drive” clearly communicates I’d probably rather not (or, in the least, attribute the fact that I’ll do it to external factors).  “Need to drive” says that I want to do it—and shall do it—but likely for reasons I attribute to being outside myself (including, for example, a deep craving to drive, which I’ve now framed as being outside my control).  Finally, “I’m going to drive” is sorta the most fantastic of all, since it has two opposite meanings that can only be clarified through context, tone, or body language:  If I say “I’m going to drive,” either I’m super gung ho to drive, or I feel totally forced into it.

Yeah, this is all subtle.  In the end, we all get that someone is gonna fucking drive, so who cares about the damned shades of meaning, Dave?  Does it really matter much, or is it just word nerd trivia?

Yes, it matters.  The little things have a fantastic power to totally deflect the big ones, just like a lone shirt button can deflect a bullet.  We all agree that the difference between getting bullseyed right in the heart to meaningfully different from taking a bullet painfully—but far from fatally—into the meaty shoulder.

Likewise, the ways that small changes in language shift our inquiry are big.

For example, consider:

RAPE AND THE PASSIVE VOICE

Language activists point out that the way we as a society refer to sexual assault uses passive voice[1] to blame the victim, with devastating effect.  We say, “She was raped” instead of “He raped her” or “Someone raped her.”  By doing this, we make the recipient of the action the subject of the sentence, and thus the focus of our questions: What was she wearing? How much did she drink?  Where was she going and why was she going there?

If you make the perpetrator the subject of the sentence, then he is also the focus of our inquiry—which is sort of entirely proper, right?  Seeing as how he’s the one on trial.  This is one of the few instances where I think we can all strongly advocate for a man totally being the focus of a situation that’s 50/50 male/female.

When I raise this, folks usually fire back in one of two ways:

  1. “It’s appropriate to use the passive voice here; we do know who the victim is, and we don’t know who the perpetrator is!”
  2. “The writer chooses to do this in order to focus on the victim, who is the one most in need of our compassion!”

I call double bullshit here.  First, on any given day, if I search Google News for “rape” I’ll tend to find an article on the first page of returns that is both 1) about a crime that has already been completely litigated and guilt found (sometimes decades ago) and 2) continues to use the passive voice. As for how the writer chooses to focus our compassion: If that’s your intent, then it is not working; try something new.

I’m not saying that journos are conspiring with the patriarchy to subjected whoever; I think these tendencies—like almost every linguistic choice we make from moment to moment—are entirely unconscious.  In the case of the rapist-less rape and those magic materializing bullets from the head of this post, I imagine these tortuous grammatically constructions arise from a combination of overabundant caution (we don’t want to speak beyond what we know), and a desperate, unstated need to distance ourselves from the awfulness of this world—to, in effect, deny that any humans were involved in creating these miseries, because to do so is to begin to suspect that we, too, might play some part in this.

And, in an entirely predictable irony, in trying to avoid giving offense and making ourselves uncomfortable, we create new and potent miseries out of thin air.

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