Left and Right Commas

by Mark L. Levinson

The year 2004, when unfortunately I didn’t have this column as a means of spreading the news, was the 250th anniversary of the punto de interogación inicial — the left-hand, or inverted, question mark that you see at the start of a Spanish question.  For us English speakers, that upside-down question mark is a strange sight because although our quotation marks are paired delimiters embracing a series of words, and so are our parentheses, we conceive the question mark as unary, a singleton.  It curls upward like the smoke at the business end of a railroad train.  A train doesn’t need smoke curling down from the caboose.

But to the Real Academia Española in 1754, a Spanish question obviously needed an indicator at the start because otherwise it might look, until its end-punctuation came into sight, like a declarative statement of fact.  That’s because the Spanish, unlike some other Europeans, ask their questions without inverting their verbs.  Come to think of it, so do the Israelis.  The left-hand question mark could be a useful addition to Hebrew.

Not only is the question mark, when you give it some thought, less about flagging a single location than about embracing a whole series of words.  So, pretty often, is the comma.

Commas come in pairs, with two exceptions.  I don’t remember who I first heard this from, so I’ll credit someone I found on Google:  “Commas come in pairs [like brackets] unless one of the pair coincides with another punctuation mark,” writes Louis Patterson, who seems to be the president of the Melbourne Anime Society.  We can see the full pair in a sentence like this:  “Louis Patterson, unless I’m confused, is president of the Melbourne Anime Society.”  But in the following variation, only one comma is visible because the second one is subsumed into the period:  “Louis Patterson is president of the Melbourne Anime Society, unless I’m confused.”  And similarly, the first comma can be subsumed at the start of the sentence, leaving only the second:  “Unless I’m confused, Louis Patterson is president of the Melbourne Anime Society.”

This phenomenon would be clearer if commas came in left-hand and right-hand versions, like parentheses, quotation marks, and Spanish question marks.  Then I think writers would be less likely to leave commas without their mates.  For example, some writers — possibly fearful of comma clutter — use a comma before a year but not after it.  “On May 20, 2000 soccer fans rioted in Melbourne.”  Was that in the year 2000, or were there two thousand rioters?  And then there’s the ugly but not uncommon comma that you might call the orphaned comma of office:  “Melbourne delegate, Louis Patterson spoke about recent anime.”  It should be either two commas in a properly formed appositive (“The Melbourne delegate, Louis Patterson, spoke about recent anime”) or no commas at all (“Melbourne delegate Louis Patterson spoke about recent anime”).

But as I was saying, there are two exceptions to the pairing of commas.  The other exception is lists.  “We have four kinds of pizza:  mushroom, olive, pepper, and onion.”  Lists use as many commas as necessary, including the final serial comma — the one before the “and” at the end.  Without that comma, suppose the sentence were “We have four kinds of pizza: tuna, mushroom, olive and pepper and onion.”  How would you know whether the third kind was olive and pepper or the fourth kind was pepper and onion?

In Hebrew, tradition is firmly against the final serial comma.  In English, some style guides, notably that of the Associated Press, discourage it.  In technical writing, I believe it’s indispensable.

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.