Monday, September 2, 2013

Comma usage in the context of construal-level theory


Commas serve the following functions, in order of their importance for legal writing:

1. Increasing cognitive fluency
2. Inducing far-mode (as defined in construal-level theory)
3. Disambiguating expressions
4. Signaling competence

No one else seems to have applied construal-level theory to comma usage, and while writing authorities pay attention to the other three, the less important are typically emphasized over the more important.

Recognized comma functions

The signaling of competence includes avoiding grammatical errors that lower a lawyer’s credibility by making him look uneducated. Although sometimes emphasized even for legal writing, the importance of signaling competence is minimal because a judge is unlikely to notice the comma errors that infect lawyerly writing and lawyers are unlikely to commit gross errors, such as placing a single comma between subject and its verb or omitting a comma after a long introductory clause. Signaling might be the reason most people study punctuation mechanics, but most legal writers would do better to ignore signaling considerations when punctuating.

Disambiguation is the most emphasized function in writing advice for legal writers, and it probably is the most important function for transactional drafting. But comma usage only rarely is necessary for disambiguation, and the importance for transactional work arises from the huge potential cost of a single error. Some authorities may regale us with the legal catastrophes due to a single comma error, but in brief writing, context will usually make the distinction clear. 

There are really only two scenarios accounting for the bulk of the cases where the comma disambiguates: distinguishing restrictive from descriptive clauses and phrases and setting off a modifying phrase at a sentence’s end when the word it modifies is nonadjacent. Neither is usually truly ambiguous when you consider context. The primary role of context in drawing the restrictive-descriptive distinction can be highlighted by orthography’s not distinguishing between these types of modifiers when they occur before the word modified. In the sentence, “I love all the beautiful Russian girls,”  you can’t tell from the bare sentence whether the writer means “Russian girls, who are beautiful” or “Russian girls who are beautiful.” (HT to commenter harassmenko.) Yet writers don’t shrink from using the grammatically ambiguous expression "beautiful Russian girls." The need for setting off terminal modifiers of distant terms also rarely arises. When it does, the expressions are seldom truly ambiguous. An example is “Prosecutor Howes bribed inmate witnesses to appear, by illegally dispersing witness-voucher funds,” where the by clause modifies “to appear,” not “bribed”: nobody thinks the witnesses appeared by bribing, although that’s what the words state without the comma before by.

Rather than creating real ambiguity, the technical ambiguity instead detracts from fluency.

Increasing the matter’s cognitive fluency is really the strongest reason for good comma usage. Oxford Comma argues cogently that the importance of punctuation for fluency can be seen from punctuation other than the comma—in particular, spaces between words—because all punctuation functions for fluency. If you delete the spaces between words, it’s still quite possible, with more effort, to read it correctly. But cognitive fluency suffers greatly. The same is true, if less obviously, if you delete all commas in long sentences. Overlooking the effect of comma usage on fluency probably explains the over-statements on the comma’s disambiguation function. The comma's effect on fluency is underestimated because the comma’s effects are complex. In fact, the most salient effect of commas is that they slow readers down, a sacrifice of fluency. Too many commas as well as too few make writing unnecessarily disfluent.

Comma use to induce abstract construal

In addition to these usual functions of the comma, another is unrecognized: activating an abstract construal level (or far mode). (Construal-level theory is treated in Construal-level theory: Matching linguistic register to the case's granularity and in its series.) In legal writing and other writing intended to influence opinion about serious matters, it’s desirable to induce the reader to think more deeply rather than focus on the superficial. Since writing is largely a near-mode activity, skill in writing requires overcoming the tendency to induce the same mental set in the reader. Consider again the omission of spaces between words, as in this example (used for other purposes in Oxford Comma):


In decoding this string, you’re forced to read in near-mode, one word at a time. Spaces group letters into words; commas group words into meaningful segments based on principles of grammar, which describe how we aggregate words in comprehending sentences. Commas, like spaces, help the reader parse the sentence into comprehensible chunks, contributing not only to fluency but also to an abstract view of the subject matter. Reading in a more molar way by focusing on groups of words activates far-mode.

The prediction, based on construal-level theory, that good comma usage not only improves cognitive fluency but also induces far-mode can be tested against writers’ intuitions about comma usage. Test cases occur where comma usage disregards grammatical structure yet is more fluent. The philosopher Tyler Burge (Origins of Objectivity) is an exceptionally lucid writer, but an over-punctuation quirk in his comma usage breaks syntactic structure, although it increases fluency:

An example of empirical representation that is itself perception is a perception of, and as of, a moving silver sphere.

Burge commits the false-interjection error, but some excellent writers will agree with Burge’s version: it is more cognitively fluent than without the commas. This school of thought, ably defended in Oxford Comma, argues for a greater role for intuition in comma usage than my prescription affords. The intuition is based on cognitive fluency. Although the expression set off by commas isn’t an interjection, the sentence is easier to understand if the reader treats it as an interjection. The meaning is distorted because the punctuation treats “perception as of” as incidental compared to “perception of,” impeding a correct understanding of “perception as of,” which is grammatically and semantically coordinate to “perception of.” (If it's not semantically coordinate, the writer should use a noncoordinate grammatical form.)  


Intuitive punctuation has its distinguished advocates, such as Richard A. Posner, who advises legal writers to punctuate pragmatically. Construal-level theory supports the counter-argument for syntactic punctuation.