Monthly Archives: January 2012

Pairs of Commas

This post is the third in a series of posts on comma use. The first post dealt with commas and coordinating conjunctions. The second dealt with non-standard commas and punctuating for length. Today’s entry will discuss the way that some commas work best in pairs. Compare these three sentences:

This innovative new technique, developed by Woljert, has altered the way this surgery is performed.

This innovative new technique, developed by Woljert has altered the way this surgery is performed.

This innovative new technique developed by Woljert, has altered the way this surgery is performed.

The first sentence clearly conveys its meaning to the reader: there is an innovative new technique that has altered the way some surgery is performed. The reader is also given supplementary information: this technique was developed by some researcher named Woljert. This element (‘developed by Woljert’) either takes two commas (as in the first sentence) or takes no commas (‘This innovative new technique developed by Woljert has altered the way this surgery is performed.’). A single comma here (as in both the second and third sentences) will throw off your readers because it doesn’t clarify the grammatical role of the adjacent information.

When clauses like this appear at the beginning or end of a sentence, the need for paired commas is obviated:

According to Chen, this new technique is very valuable.

This new technique is very valuable, according to Chen.

This new technique, according to Chen, is very valuable.

In each of the first two sentences, an additional comma becomes unnecessary because of the placement of the clause at the beginning or end of the sentence. In the third sentence, we see the need for two commas to clarify the role of this brief interruption. (Of course, you will have noticed that the first sentence sounds much better than the other two. You don’t generally want to give this sort of unimportant information such a prominent place at the end of the sentence. Similarly, you don’t generally want to interrupt a sentence in this fashion unless the interruption itself is significant.)

This use of one comma instead of two (or none) isn’t a particularly grammatically complex issue, but it is a frequent occurrence in the student writing I see. And while it isn’t fatal, it does make your reader’s life more difficult. In lots of cases, this mistake may just be random carelessness; it’s certainly easy to miss a comma here or there. But if you repeatedly use a single comma when two (or none) are needed, you  may be experiencing some confusion between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses: not knowing whether to use no commas (as you would for a restrictive clause) or two commas (as you would for a nonrestrictive clause), maybe you split the difference and use just one. Come back for the next comma post, in which I will try to sort out the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. As I will stress then, this distinction is most crucially an issue of punctuation, but I will also touch on the persistent dilemma experienced by writers trying to choose between ‘which’ and ‘that’.

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Links: Distraction, Typographical Fixity, Tweeting Your Thesis

This great article by John Plotz in the New York Times discusses the history of distraction. What I liked about the historical perspective—i.e., the evidence that people in monasteries and convents also suffered from acute distraction!—is that it emphasizes the need to accept and work through distraction. Our various devices obviously make procrastination easier, but they aren’t its sole cause. Solitary labours are difficult for most of us. When we go to Facebook (or wherever we go when the need for distraction hits) instead of working, we are often simply acting on a deep impulse for interaction and stimulation. I think if we treat distraction as inevitable rather than as failure, we are more likely to find ways to achieve a satisfying balance between contemplation and engagement.

Here is a discussion of the implications of the ebook format from Nicholas Carr writing in the Wall Street Journal. Carr’s interest is the potential for a lack of ‘typographical fixity’ (a phrase he borrows from Elizabeth Eisenstein) when a book is always up for revision. What are the proper boundaries of a book—what John Updike has called its ‘edges’—if there are no barriers to changing the text? In Carr’s words, we have shifted from ‘moveable type’ to ‘moveable text’. This shift may prompt us to ask ourselves a key question: if a book changes after you read it, have you still read it? For some readers, this question is bound to be perplexing and worthwhile; for others, it will sound like unnecessary hand wringing. Kent Anderson, writing in The Scholarly Kitchen blog, offers a critique of the hyperbole running through Carr’s piece. But I am still interested in what this ongoing malleability of text might mean for the psychological state of a writer. Carr’s article is called ‘Books That Are Never Done Being Written’. On the face of it, that’s not what most of us are looking for: an open-ended writing process in which revision never is, and can never be, complete!

As some of you will have seen, last week brought a flurry of activity under the #tweetyourthesis hashtag. I saw many beautiful but brief statements of research designed to be shared as widely as possible. I think brevity is a great thing in a context where length is the ultimate currency. (In the past, I have praised the Dissertation Haiku blog; its most recent entry is poignant as well as poetic.) Here is a discussion of how #tweetyourthesis came to be, and here is a somewhat critical response. Whenever someone says that good research cannot be summarized briefly, my heart always sinks a bit. Of course, good research cannot be completed without depth (and I would certainly concede that some scientific terminology may be truly incompatible with a limit of 140 characters ), but it seems terrible to say that you don’t have a good question if you can state it briefly.

Finally, Improbable Research identifies the best abstract ever. Go ahead and click the link—I guarantee you’ve got time to read it.

Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.

Commas: Punctuating for Length

This post is the second in a series of posts on comma use. The first post dealt with commas and coordinating conjunctions.

Today’s topic is the practice of putting commas in sentences as a response to the length of the sentence. Consider this example:

The purpose of these focus groups was to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment, and focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

The comma after ‘treatment’ is, as your grammar book will tell you, unnecessary. Indeed, putting a comma there might cause some readers to think that ‘focus on exploring’ is the start of an independent clause. To illustrate the redundancy of this comma, consider the same punctuation pattern in a very simple sentence:

I went to the store for milk, and eggs.

This sentence will look wrong to most of us since it separates ‘milk’ and ‘eggs’ when they are obviously meant to go together. There is no reason for a comma between ‘I went to the store for’ and ‘eggs’. We wouldn’t say ‘I went to the store for, eggs’. (We would, however, say, ‘I went to the store for milk, eggs, and avocados’ because we punctuate lists of three or more items differently than we do pairs. For more on lists, see here, here, and here.)

What, then, do we think about the comma usage in our first example? The grammar books suggest it is wrong. The analogy with a short sentence suggests that it is wrong. (Of course, I would certainly acknowledge that it is possible to refuse the logic that says ‘wrong in a short sentence, therefore wrong in a long sentence’. In fact, we do sometimes use punctuation differently in short and long sentences; Veni, vidi, vici invariably comes up in such discussions.) But whether it is wrong or not, this is a pattern of comma use that you will see in lots of respectable places.

My response to this uncertainty is to characterize this usage as non-standard rather than as wrong. This assessment alerts students to the fact that the usage may be ambiguous for some readers and may be out of place in some sentences. However, to me, the most salient thing about this type of comma use is that it is generally better to leave it in place than to remove it without further alteration of the sentence. Simply removing it may make your sentence more ‘correct’ but will likely also make it harder to read. Let’s look at our first example again, now with the non-standard comma removed:

The purpose of these focus groups was to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment and focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

You can immediately see that this isn’t a good solution. The new sentence is much harder to read and, in fact, some might even read ‘outpatient treatment and focus’ as a single phrase and thus become confused about the sentence structure. What are our options when a pattern of comma usage isn’t standard and yet removing the comma only makes things worse?

The simplest revision would look something like this:

The purpose of these focus groups was both to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment and to focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

Using ‘both’ serves to alert the reader that a pair is coming; since the reader is expecting the writer to offer a dual purpose, the reader will be anticipating a compound structure. The repetition of the ‘to’ (‘both to improve and to focus’) will be another hint to the reader as to how to read the sentence. Notice all the ‘ands’ in our example sentence; repeating an element like ‘to’ signals to the reader which ‘and’ is doing the heavy lifting.

Another option would be to restructure the sentence so that it explicitly anticipates the two purposes:

These focus groups had two main purposes: to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment and to focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

In this case, the reader encounters ‘to improve’ and then ‘to focus’ with a prior understanding that there are two purposes; by providing that explicit information, the writer makes very certain that the reader will know how to read the sentence. The only downside to this structure is the possibility that it could overemphasize something that might actually be trivial:

The trip to the store had two main purposes: milk and eggs.

But in our original example, the writer seems to be giving important information about the current research, suggesting that the extra emphasis provided by the colon is warranted.

In sum, I think it is valuable to be aware of this pattern of comma use as non-standard. With that knowledge, you may go on using the comma in this way or you may choose to rephrase. My point is that, in many cases, the optimal solution won’t be to remove this comma without also altering the sentence in other ways. In some cases, of course, simple removal will work, but in more cases, when we punctuate for length, we are responding to a valuable intuition that the sentence won’t work without some additional aid for the reader.

Our next comma post will look at the importance of understanding when a comma can stand alone and when it needs a partner.

One Year On

Tomorrow will be the first anniversary of this blog, so I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all for reading and commenting and sharing. Over these twelve months, I’ve had 60 posts and somewhere in the range of 20,000 views. The most viewed post is the one on reverse outlines, which has been viewed almost 1,000 times. Since I often identify the reverse outline as the most important writing tool available to us, this number makes me very happy. The other tops posts are the one on transitions and the one on using writing to clarify your own thinking. But why am I pointing you to the most popular posts?! I should be directing you to the least viewed post of the year: something from September on the role audience plays in our anxiety about writing.

It has been very gratifying to see how many people have added the blog to their blogrolls or otherwise shared my posts with their own followers. But in looking over a year’s worth of stats, I was most interested in one number: the number of times readers have left my blog to visit places I have recommended or linked to. I am delighted by the approximately 3,000 times that readers have gone elsewhere from my blog; the most frequent destinations are The Thesis Whisperer and Grammar Girl, both excellent choices. Since the Internet often has exactly what we need amidst thousands of things we really don’t need, I’m happy to be part of helping people to find the good bits.

I’m looking forward to another year of blogging. My plan is to carry on in the same vein: one week, a post on a topic in academic writing; the next, a post commenting on discussions of academic writing found in blogs and other online sources. This plan will carry on for some time, but I would love, at some point, to add a more general and responsive discussion of writing. In the classroom, I find it very helpful to give students some non-directed time with examples of academic writing. A class discussion of a particular issue will involve many related examples, all designed to allow students to apprehend the problem. However, unsurprisingly, this apprehension doesn’t end all difficulties with that issue. There is a subsequent—and much slower—step: developing the ability to diagnose writing issues without the prompt of knowing that the writing is being looked at with a particular issue in mind. I would love to add a new feature to the blog that might help to develop that ability: I could present a passage—one that hadn’t been selected to exemplify any particular issue—and then see how it might be improved in a range of ways, drawing on topics discussed in previous posts. Look for that feature once I’ve exhausted all the foundational topics I need to discuss and think about whether you have any troublesome passages of your own writing that you would like to share for online analysis and revision. And, as always, if you have questions or topics you would like to see me discuss, just let me know via Facebook or Twitter or via the blog’s contact or comment functions.