Saturday, November 12, 2011

Misconstruing the compound as elliptical: The fundamental error of comma usage

I spend an outrageous amount of time cogitating about the comma. Not a specific comma, to which I rarely give a second thought, but about commas in general. These aren’t the most popular blog entries. What drives me is the sense that there’s something wrong—yet widespread—in comma usage and that my alternative isn’t quite right, either.

With the help of one of Mark Nichol’s daily postings, I think I’ve found the central grammatical error underlying problems in comma usage among educated professionals and professional writers. Mark, an editor, has a good eye for detecting writing errors and a remarkable fluency with examples; I’ve learned from his tips. This time, I’ve learned from his mistake; and I figure that if Mark can commit it, the error is common. Let’s start with Mark’s example (which, to be fair, will be put to use outside his posting’s topic, comma splice).
At times, it resembled the pitch of a whirring blender, and at other moments, an angelic choir.

I think the correct punctuation is:
At times, it resembled the pitch of a whirring blender and, at other moments, an angelic choir.

Grammatical analysis is significant here because it can dictate punctuation, since punctuation’s function is to parse text into units we can think of as chunks—to carve text at its joints. Under this view, the most fundamental use of the comma is to separate independent clauses that are combined by means of a coordinating conjunction, such as and, but, or or. This centrality makes it pivotal whether an element is an independent clause. The fundamental error of comma usage is parsing as a compound sentence what only involves a lesser compound (not constituted of independent clauses): a compound subject, compound predicate, compound object, or compound predicate complement. While I knew that before, what I now understand is that writers err in grammar by reading compound elements as elliptical when they commit this error in mechanics.

In Mark’s sentence, he takes (as he says in Comments to his posting) the words following and as being elliptical, which means that to understand the sentence’s grammar, you must assume that some words in the fully grammatical version were omitted. (The second sentence of this entry involves genuine ellipsis.) On Mark’s parsing, the fully grammatical version of his sentence would read:
At times, it resembled the pitch of a whirring blender, and at other moments, it resembled an angelic choir.
If this were the correct parsing, at other moments, it resembled an angelic choir could stand alone as a sentence, making it an independent clause. But this parsing is wrong; the sentence isn’t elliptical, as there’s nothing surfacially ungrammatical about it. The sentence with revised punctuation is fully grammatical because angelic choir isn’t the object of a second, elided, predicate, resembled; rather, it is part of a compound direct object of the original resembled. In skeleton, the sentence says:
It resembled the pitch and the choir.
When simplified, it’s obvious that pitch and choir are parts of the compound direct object, pitch and choir.

Tina Blue, an English-department grammarian, gets the principle right and gives examples of how the rule applies to the different kinds of compound element. She hedges on compound predicates: “Occasionally, however, if the parts of a compound predicate are unusually long, [sic] or if the writer feels the need for special emphasis, a comma can be used with a compound predicate. Such commas should be treated as a heavy spice, though, and used sparingly... If you use such commas frequently, then you have a stylistic tic that you need to work on.”

But for these special circumstances, the better solution might be rewriting the sentence as a genuine compound sentence. An example of sentence containing a compound predicate that Tina Blue thinks might stand a comma but that doesn’t require one is:
The last candidate spoke for what seemed like hours, and thoroughly bored them.

Compare with:
The last candidate spoke for what seemed like hours and thoroughly bored them.
And with:
The last candidate spoke for what seemed like hours, and he thoroughly bored them.

The first version disorients readers by leading them to expect the elements connected by and to have equal status; dividing a single predicate with a comma, moreover, leads readers to forget the sentence’s subject, when they need it to interpret the predicate’s second major word. The second version—the way I would have written this sentence previously—leads readers to expect a noun following and, instead of a verb. The third—at only slight cost in concision and euphony—is clearest. For legal writing, it’s the best choice.

[Correction (Nov. 20, 2015)] - I'm mistaken above in analyzing the first example, which is in fact elliptical. See comments. H/T Ben Tillman.]


  1. "At times, it resembled the pitch of a whirring blender. At other moments, an angelic choir."

    Why have trouble the 'and' when you can ommit it, with no loss of clarity?

    1. Breaking the sentence into a sentence plus a sentence fragment places greater emphasis on the fragment. The writer may not want that effect. (I plan a post on sentence length and emphasis.)

    2. "Breaking the sentence into a sentence plus a sentence fragment places greater emphasis on the fragment."

      I don't see why, but i'll think about it.

      "Why have trouble the 'and' when you can ommit it, with no loss of clarity?"

      Not sure what happened there! I think it was the result of considering the 'and', and then recalling the old engineering adage; if a parts' giving you trouble, leave it out. So i did - by starting a new sentence. Btw, should that last 'if' (have) been capitalized?

      I also read your posts on commas, and have since considered if sentences can be apropriately constructed without *any* commas - again without significant loss of meaning or nuance. Maybe. Perhaps the comma is simply a way of transfering some of the communication load from writer to reader. That is, a crutch for the writer and an added burden for the reader. Obviously some examples would help but it is tempting to suppose that historically, writers having the responsibility of creating a text *and* manning the quill, pen or typewriter, plus paying for the ink and paper, might have developed subtle 'shortcuts' in their writing styles that have subsequently become part of the accepted elements of good style. The medium alters the message?

      "(I plan a post on sentence length and emphasis.)"

      Okay, looking forward to it.

    3. Take a look at "Punctuating for Prosody or for Syntax" (, which deals with the history of comma usage.

  2. I disagree with you both. You need a comma on each side of "and". It's a compound sentence in which the second clause has an elided verb. The placement of "at times" at the beginning of the sentence (before the verb) precludes the use of a conflicting modifier after the verb in the same clause. Placing it at the beginning of the clause causes "at times" to modify all the action that follows until the end of the clause. If you want it to stop, you need to start a new clause.

    1. Yes, I think you're actually correct. My analysis had omitted the modifiers, which you show are relevant.

      [I think the asthetically motivated convention is to omit the comma after "and" (although I would prefer to retain it.)]

  3. I'm glad you agree, and you can see that I don't follow the aesthetically motivated convention.

    I like your blog, by the way, and I too am a lawyer.