Forcing a Comma

by Mark L. Levinson

As the proverb says, you can have ten spokes or twelve spokes but it is because of the void in the center that you have use of a wheel.  Similarly, all the elements of a sentence converge at the point where there is nothing:  the juncture between the subject and predicate. 

Because everything depends on the division between subject and predicate, sometimes a writer is tempted to mark that division with a comma.  Particularly if the subject is long, or weighty, or followed by a pause when you speak the sentence, or if the subject is full of internal punctuation itself, or if the end of the subject isn’t obvious at a glance, the devil will offer you a comma as a tool of clarification.

“Everything but the Girl is my favorite for nighttime listening,” you write.

The devil appears in a pop-up window.  “That’s fine for people who know there was a musical group called Everything but the Girl,” he says.  “But suppose somebody doesn’t.  ‘What do you like to listen to?’  ‘Everything but the Girl is my favorite.’  It sounds as if one the one hand you like everything, but on the other hand the Girl is your favorite.  The grouping of the four words into a single name, isn’t obvious.  What your problem is, is that you need a comma.”

If the devil says something like that to you, right-click his window and select “Get thee behind me.”  It’s true that when a verb is directly preceded by a noun that isn’t its subject, the reader’s eye can have difficulty pulling them apart.  No matter what the rest of the sentence makes it mean, “the Girl is” looks as if it would rather mean that the Girl is. But the comma isn’t the only way to break the false relationship between the words.

Sometimes you can force a mismatch in number between the noun and the verb.  You could write that “albums by Everything but the Girl are my favorite.” 

Sometimes, although a comma must not be used solely to ink the border between subject and verb, you can introduce a complete pair of commas that serve an additional purpose and can reasonably be located there:  “Everything but the Girl, with its sophisti-pop style, is my favorite.”

“What do you mean, ‘must not’?” says the devil.  “Forget the group with the long name.  Suppose I want to write, ‘Sister Sledge, is my favorite group.’  That’s the way I would speak the sentence.  I’d provide a rhetorical pause that at the same time indicates my respect for the group, asserts my right to my opinion by confidently assuming no one will dare interrupt with an objection, and gives you a moment to retrieve the group from your mental database.  And because writing is only a way of imitating speech, punctuation should be about reflecting the way we speak rather than following rules some supposedly superior person made up, right?”

He makes that argument because he’s the devil, and it’s the devil’s job to reduce order to chaos.  But as E.B. White wrote, “Unless someone is willing to entertain notions of superiority, the English language disintegrates, just as a home disintegrates unless someone in the family sets standards of good taste, good conduct, and simple justice.”

In 1953, Andy Griffith recorded a hit comedy record called “What It Was, Was Football.”  My old Chicago manual allows such a comma, under “Separating Identical or Similar Words.”  (The latest edition calls it “Commas Between Homonyms.”) The manual’s own example is “Whatever is, is good” — a sentiment that sounds curiously like the devil’s argument against authority.

I won’t argue with the Chicago manual, but I’ll permit myself to argue against Andy Griffith.  He wouldn’t need the comma if he used the right tense: “What It Was Is Football.”

Comments and questions are welcome: ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.