kitchen table math, the sequel: Commas, up and down

Monday, June 8, 2015

Commas, up and down

Ben Yagoda on commas coming and going:
An interesting Slate piece a few months back by Matthew J.X. Malady noted many Twitter users’ disdain for commas. It’s not just a matter of being frugal with punctuation in order to fit a thought into 140 characters. Punctuational minimalism has emerged as one of the hallmarks of casual online style—social media, texting, commenting, message boards. One inescapable example, which I’ve previously discussed, is the sea change in email greeting from “Hi, Name” to “Hi Name.” This is by no means exclusively the province of kids and illiterates....(Exceptions to the minimalism rule are ellipses, question marks, and exclamation points, which have spread online like Asian carp in a predator-free freshwater ecosystem.)

Skilled Twitter users drop commas, in particular, to punch up the comedy. Malady quoted a tweet by the writer Jen Doll on a day that Gmail went down for almost an hour: “I guess all those losers outside skiing or like at the movies or whatever missed out on this exciting adventure we just had.”


In certain quarters, the trend, if anything, is more commas. Dropping the suspense, the quarters I refer to are the offices of The New Yorker, the soon-to-be-90-year-old magazine that is the veritable St. Peter’s Basilica of the comma. For The New Yorker, using this punctuation mark in all generally accepted and even optional spots, including after the penultimate item in a series, goes without saying. The magazine’s secret sauce in generating commas is its extreme strict constructionist view of nonessential (also known as nondefining) elements in a sentence. Consider: “By the time Blockbuster got around to offering its own online subscription service, in 2004, it was too late.” Virtually everybody else would leave out the commas after “service.” The New Yorker insists on it, the logic being that otherwise, the writer would be implying that Blockbuster offered its own online subscription service in years other than 2004.

Some people count sheep to get to sleep. I lie in bed reading New Yorkers on my Kindle, counting the commas. Normally, six or seven in a sentence is a number that allows me to close my eyes and drift off. Imagine my surprise, a couple of months ago, when I came upon this, in a review of a book about William Burroughs.
The biography, after its eventful start, becomes rather like an odyssey by subway in the confines of Burroughs’s self-absorption, with connecting stops in New York, where he lived, in the late nineteen-seventies, on the Bowery, in the locker room of a former Y.M.C.A., and, returning to the Midwest, in the congenial university town of Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his last sixteen years, and where he died, of a heart attack, in 1997, at the age of eighty-three.
That’s right. Sixteen commas. I had the feeling that the magazine’s editors were having a laugh among themselves, which I was lucky enough to share in.

I think so much about New Yorker commas that sometimes my head gets all in a spin, especially when pondering what I call the prepositional-phrase conundrum. It comes up in a series of prepositional phrases (as in Burroughs’s New York and Kansas experiences, above) or with verb-prepositional-phrase constructions, in cases where the verb is not preceded by a subordinate conjunction, such as the two “where”s in the Burroughs example. Consider these fairly recent quotes from the magazine:
  1. “It first appeared in 1959, in Paris, as ‘The Naked Lunch’ (with the definite article), in an Olympia Press paperback edition, in company with ‘Lolita,’ ‘The Ginger Man,’ and ‘Sexus.’”
  2. “Brigham’s Allentown and Pittsburgh clinics finally closed, in 2012.”
  3. Robert Frost “was born in 1874 in San Francisco, where his father, William Frost, a newspaperman from primeval New England stock, had taken a job.”
No. 1 (also from the Burroughs review) omits a comma after “appeared.” Presumably that’s because “in 1959″ is considered an essential element, as is “in 1974″ in example No. 3. But why? There was only one year that Naked Lunch first appeared, as there was only one year Robert Frost was born. And sure enough, in example No. 2, recognizing there was only one year that the clinics finally closed, the magazine’s copy desk kept or put in the comma.

But down that road leads madness. Abraham Lincoln died just one time, but even The New Yorker would never print the sentence, “Lincoln died, in 1865.”

Or, would it?

The Commas Suit Ya by Ben Yagoda 4/29/2014
I've been thinking about New Yorker commas ever since reading an excerpt from Mary Norris's Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, a book I'm going to be buying as soon as I finish writing mine.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I think that the three sentences are easy to explain.
“It first appeared in 1959, in Paris, as ‘The Naked Lunch’ (with the definite article), in an Olympia Press paperback edition, in company with ‘Lolita,’ ‘The Ginger Man,’ and ‘Sexus.’”

No comma, because the information being conveyed is the year it first appeared.

“Brigham’s Allentown and Pittsburgh clinics finally closed, in 2012.”

A comma is included, because the "in 2012" is an aside---the information is that they finally closed, not exactly when they closed. Without the "finally", I would assume that the information being conveyed was when they closed, and the comma would be removed.

Robert Frost “was born in 1874 in San Francisco, where his father, William Frost, a newspaperman from primeval New England stock, had taken a job.”

Again the information being conveyed is when and where he was born, not just the fact that he was born (rather than hatched?).

Jo in OKC said...

I think one of the reasons that commas are dying in texting and twitter is that the iPhone doesn't put commas on the first/main screen of the keyboard in the default keyboard. You must switch to the numbers screen to get a comma. I've noticed that I'm much less likely to use a comma on my (work) iPhone than on my (personal) Android, which has a comma to the left of the space bar on the first/main keyboard screen.