When commas are crucial to comprehension

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When I write a clause that begins with a clause-containing adjunct, I generally put a comma after the adjunct. The comma in that first sentence illustrates my practice. Some writers studiously avoid such a comma (sometimes my style is known as "heavy" punctuation and the other style as "light"). I also like the so-called "Oxford comma": I write Oregon and Washington, but I don't write California, Oregon and Washington. I use an extra comma and write California, Oregon, and Washington.

I couldn't wish for a better illustration of why I like my own policies than the following sentence, which I saw in The Economist last week (April 4, p. 11). It goes the other way on both of my policies, and it's disastrously misunderstandable in my opinion:

Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money, but when they failed the parent company, the client and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.

Let's strip it down to the bare essentials for discussion, reducing the part I'm concerned with to this:

When they failed the parent company, the client and the taxpayer had to pay.

The problem is that I found myself reading the parent company as the direct object of failed (wrong; what was intended was that I should read failed as intransitive), and then that left the client and the taxpayer to be the subject of had to pay (wrong again; the intention was to have the parent company, the client and the taxpayer in that role).

You don't get the same effect in the following sentence of the article, despite its initial when adjunct:

Monetary policy contributed to this asymmetry of risk: when markets faltered central banks usually rescued them by cutting interest rates.

The reason is twofold. First, falter is a purely intransitive verb: there is no possibility of reading *Markets faltered central banks as if it were a clause. And second, since there is no tripartite coordination, we are forced to read central banks as the subject of usually rescued them because there is no other noun phrase to fill that role. So in that case it doesn't matter whether you follow my policies or not: nothing untoward happens. By contrast, look at this (invented) example:

When I left the army, my father and my mother were delighted.

A comprehension catastrophe, if what you meant was that you were in college, but the army wanted to recruit you and your parents wanted you to go serve your country. In that case you really needed to write this about your abandoning college:

When I left, the army, my father, and my mother were delighted.

Here's how I would have punctuated the original Economist example, using both the post-adjunct comma and the Oxford comma:

Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money, but when they failed, the parent company, the client, and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.

My policy is better. It's not always vitally necessary, and I'm not rigid about it, but often it is clearly better. It truly does forestall misunderstandings. This is not like one of those dopey rules such as that you mustn't use since to mean "in view of the fact that" because it might lead to ambiguity (the publication manual of the American Psychological Association insists on that one). Since has been used to mean "in view of the fact that" for hundreds of years and I've never seen it lead to a confusing ambiguity. The maintainers of the rule are unjustified both in terms of what's found in good writing and in terms of what's ambiguous and what isn't.

But there have been real people who used the post-adjunct comma and the Oxford comma in their writings (there is more than one convention in play here, I'm not inventing a new one), and they were right to do so, because it really does hold misunderstandings at bay. So follow me, not The Economist.

And don't ever say you never saw a prescriptive statement on Language Log. We aren't opposed to prescriptive statements (though lots of people think we are). We're opposed to stupid prescriptive statements that don't have any point and incorrect prescriptive statements that don't agree with the usage they are trying to prescribe. We're emphatically in favor of obeying widely accepted principles of grammar that genuinely help clear expression and easy comprehension. What's not to like about clear expression and easy comprehension?

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56 Comments »

  1. rootlesscosmo said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    In what I've long thought of as its characteristic "extra-heavy" punctuation style, I would expect The New Yorker to have written "…but, when they failed, the parent company…" etc.

  2. Picky said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    Of course your policy is tons better – although your re-punctuated sentence is somewhat heavily comma-ed – there's a kind of comma dazzle there. Can I suggest a semi-colon after "money" would be nice?

  3. mgh said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

    Just wondering: is there any rationale behind

    , but when they failed,

    vs

    but, when they failed,

    Like you, I usually write the first (because it's closer to how I speak it?), but I've been consciously switching to the second, because it seems clearer.

  4. Gramsci said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    Thomas Pynchon should have a character named Comma Dazzle.

  5. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    Somehow I'm very pleased that my comma habits are the same as Pullum's. When I was a PhD student, I edited my advisor's book, and I noticed that he used commas far less often than I would have.

  6. Flooey said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

    Unfortunately, there are examples (usually with possible appositives, from what I've seen) where the Oxford comma causes ambiguity rather than resolving it, such as in the frequent example:

    To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.

    Ayn Rand could be either an appositive or an element in the list. Without the Oxford comma, it's clearly an element in a list.

    I personally prefer the Oxford comma and think it resolves ambiguity more often than it introduces it, but I don't think that a hard-and-fast rule requiring it is a perfect answer.

    [I did say: "It's not always vitally necessary, and I'm not rigid about it". With punctuation you need to be sensitive to the possibility of misinterpretation, and flexible about what you'll do to cope. —GKP]

  7. Boris Blagojević said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

    I agree that this "heavy punctuation" is far better than leaving the comma out, but the style used in listings seems quite irrelevant to me. Some marginal ambiguities arise when using the Oxford comma, some when avoiding it.
    Unless I've overlooked something, the case for the heavy punctuation is a lot more clear-cut.

  8. John Cowan said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

    Flooey: If Ayn Rand is an appositive, I would write "To my mother Ayn Rand and God", with no commas at all.

  9. Ellen said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

    My rule of thumb is to use a comma where I would pause in speech. That perhaps doesn't quite cover the Oxford comma (which I prefer), but it covers the other one. Seems to me anywhere there would be a noticable pause in speech, there should be punctuation (not always a comma) to mark it.

  10. James C. said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    Prescription applies generally to writing rather than speech. Writing is learned rather than acquired. Language acquisition processes have the peculiar characteristic of not needing exposure to incomprehensible data. In contrast, language learning processes require that nonsense be pointed out. So when we learn to write we have to learn what sort of written forms are incomprehensible or otherwise difficult to understand. Unfortunately writing is not generally taught the same way as second languages are, so learners don’t get exposure to incomprehensible data.

    So there’s nothing wrong at all with prescriptive rules when applied to writing, because writing is not an innate activity. It’s just that the majority of people offering prescriptive rules are complete nincompoops who have no real idea what they are doing.

  11. fiona hanington said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    And then there's this version of the Ayn Rand+God example, where the Oxford comma would improve the sentence:

    "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

  12. Jim said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

    "They arrived as singles and couples, Tom and Sarah, Bob and Carol and Louise." Is Carol straight or a lesbian?

    [Good question. But we need to talk about whether Bob and Carol and Louise should be invited to the barbecue at all; that stuff with the collar and the whips last year frightened some of the kids... —GKP]

    With the Ayn Rand example, the problem is really that there is no clean way to punctuate the sentence to make it read unambiguously. A good editor should have it rewritten, such as "To my mother, to Ayn Rand, and to God." Sometimes a little redundancy improves clarity.

    Outside of linguistic circles, you'll inevitably find that if you request the Oxford comma, someone will pipe up with the old saw "You don't actually need it." They usually don't actually have an issue with it being there, it's just a gut reaction they've been trained to reply with. And no one in the room wants to devolve into this sort of a tangent.

    I've recently found (oops, "I recently have found"! grin) a way to short circuit the issue. I reply with "I'm a Virgo. Trust me, *I* need the comma." Thus far, this makes people nod their heads knowingly, insert the comma, and move on. It carries an implied promise/threat: submit to my grammar and punctuation requests, because I know what I'm doing, or suffer the consequences of my Virgo-ness.

    Nobody wants to go there, me included.

    [Jim has a brilliant idea here: treat prescriptivism as being relevantly constrained by astrology. After all, the one has just about as much factual support as the other. I'm a Virgo; a Virgo needs the comma after the adjunct; that settles it. And nobody can change their sign, after all — it's out of their control. In fact almost anything would do, in circumstances where you're face to face with the prescriptive quibbler, if you play it right. It doesn't have to be about the sign you were born under. Psychopathy, for example, could play the same role. "Look, I'm sorry, but if you understood about the meds my psychiatrist has put me on, you'd know why that adverb has to be exactly where I put it, after the to and before the verb." Make the prescriptivist feel in an uneasy way that if your adverb were moved you would go ape and there would be howling and convulsions and bloodshed. Language Log has spent too much time trying to reason with prescriptivists. Perhaps the thing to do is just to make them fear us. —GKP]

  13. JTE Elms said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    By cosmic coincidence, I happen to be a professional writer who has made my living for mumblety-mumble years using both the post-initial-adjunct comma and the Oxford comma. Both can be optional, of course. But both are often necessary tools for enabling the accurate disambiguation of complex text in technical writing.

    Neither comma form need necessarily be marked with some prosodic equivalent in a dynamic speech stream. However, the assumed "innateness" of speech, as opposed to the assumed purely cultural nature of writing, has nothing whatever to do with this difference.

    Real-time speech is created under radically different production conditions than written text. Speech is generated on demand rather than with "malice aforethought." It is ephemeral, real-time, streamed information with no instant replay option. The coded portion of the speech stream is produced in parallel with multimodal dynamic binding to referents, multimodal affective markup, and multimodal n-way interaction control. The limits of working memory in real time, combined with these concurrent task demands, togehter drive speech to adopt very different content and structure than written texts. The coded, data-transfer portion of the speech stream is dramatically simpler in form than written text because speech is also doing other things.

    Writing, in contrast, is produced asynchronously from reading and takes much longer to produce than to read. It stays put on the page. Its static form augments the natural limits of working memory and affords repeated visual scans until comprehension is achieved. By design, written texts are formulated for (relative) portability across local contexts. Much of the work that interactive speech accomplishes through noncoded means is layered into the coded signal of a written sentence, and to the degree that a writer's skill permits this, a portable default context is embedded in the entailments of what is written. The translation of uncoded to coded form demands more complexity in linguistic constructions, and the static two-dimensional form of the medium supports that complexity. Over time, radical new inventions specific to the technology of the written word have been developed to constrain possible parsings in these more complex constructions. Consider, for example, the invention of the written vowel. Or the period. Or the white space between words. Or even, heaven help us, the comma, the the semicolon, the hyphen, and the em-dash.

    There is no gene for the em-dash, I'll grant you. But there may not be a gene for the dramatic pause with hand flourish, either. And no "language organ" of a purely grammatical nature would account for either one.

  14. Sarah said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

    While the heavy punctuation example is technically more clear, I think there's something to be said for being mindful of sentence flow. In the 'when I left the army' example, for instance, the sentence would be infinitely more readable if the adjunct phrase were at the end. Using too many commas – even in the name of clarity – most often leaves the reader with a clunky sentence that's hard to swallow. They shouldn't have to be doing all the work; in my opinion, it's the sign of a lazy writer.

    [Nice comma there, after "in my opinion"; like it. —GKP]

  15. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

    Since has been used to mean 'in view of the fact that' for hundreds of years and I've never seen it lead to a confusing ambiguity.

    Not that I support the dopey anti-since rules, but ambiguous examples are easy to create. If they're hard to find in the wild, it might be because of editing — good or bad.

    "Since Elmer invented that sticky gunk, people have been calling it Elmer's Glue."
    Is this a statement about how long the name has existed or why the name exists?

    [Nice example. Andy has certainly proved that it is possible to create an ambiguous case. My claim, though, is that he's quite clever: it's not that easy. And if you look at real examples in their contexts, virtually none are ambiguous. I once looked through all the 20 occurrences of since in a book of philosophy by Hume, and found that 19 of them were the inferential sense, and only one was temporal. And that was 18th-century writing. So the idea that the inferential sense should be banned as a matter of house style is pretty weird. —GKP]

  16. Karen said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

    I don't think the Elmer's example is at all ambiguous, because I doubt anyone would ever say the temporal sentence. The name overrides that possibility. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems very forced to even derive it – unlike, say, "Since Jones came to town, people have been calling him The Shootist".

  17. Paul Wilkins said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

    One of most recent literary mentors suggested cleaning up the ant poops from the page where there are not necessary. And rewriting when one's meaning is unclear.

    But, when I think about it, there's something to be said, if you like to control the pace at which the reader reads, for shoehorning ant droppings everywhere in your sentences.

  18. sore eyes said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

    And don't ever say you never saw a prescriptive statement on Language Log. We aren't opposed to prescriptive statements (though lots of people think we are). We're opposed to stupid prescriptive statements that don't have any point and incorrect prescriptive statements that don't agree with the usage they are trying to prescribe. We're emphatically in favor of obeying widely accepted principles of grammar that genuinely help clear expression and easy comprehension. What's not to like about clear expression and easy comprehension?

    Exactly. And that's why not every copy editor is a raving idiot or mindless follower of a house style. (One could get this impression from some of the more intemperate invective against copy editors.) Some of us endeavour to use our powers for good rather than evil, suggesting changes to a text for the sake of improving clarity or avoiding ambiguity rather than just for the sake of it.

    [Sore eyes is right: some copy editors do a lovely job of sensitive criticism and suggestions for greater clarity. But then again, there are the servants of the American Psychological Association who change every which to that if there is no comma before it and change every since to because if it does not have temporal sense and move every adverb that separates to from a verb and so on and so on... One copy editor I suffered under changed every though to although. I was baffled for quite a while; and then I realized that although is mentioned at one point by the APA Publication Manual and though isn't, so this poor person thought that though was not acceptable. (There are people who think though is a shortened form of although, I think. They are wrong. The latter is a 14th-century embellishment of the former.) —GKP]

  19. Neal Goldfarb said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

    JTE Elms:

    By cosmic coincidence, I happen to be a professional writer who has made my living for mumblety-mumble years using both the post-initial-adjunct comma and the Oxford comma.

    That sounds pretty specialized. Does it pay well?

  20. language hat said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

    Unfortunately, there are examples (usually with possible appositives, from what I've seen) where the Oxford comma causes ambiguity rather than resolving it, such as in the frequent example:

    To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.

    That is not a particularly frequent example, though I have seen it before; the canonical form is the one fiona gives. And as John Cowan says, you could omit all commas to avoid the ambiguity. It is, however, pretty much a straw man. I don't think I have ever seen an actual sentence (i.e., not invented for the purpose) where an Oxford comma produced ambiguity. I am a professional copy editor, and I love working for Oxford UP, because I can enforce the Oxford comma and please both myself and my employer.

  21. language hat said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

    Also, what sore eyes said.
    (*high-fives colleague*)

  22. Ellen said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 5:53 pm

    JTE Elms, I'm not sure if your long comment was partly in reply to my post or not. Anyway, I was not thinking about speech, but, rather, the pauses one has in one's head as one writes the text. Or later reads one's own text. And, related, the pauses one would use when reading this text out loud. If I'm pausing, I probably want a period, a comma, a semi-colon, or a dash. Or occasionally, in casual writing, an ellipsis.

  23. jk said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

    Is there a British tendency to stint on commas? Seems to me I've frequently seen British journalists omit the trailing comma on what my AP Stylebook calls "non-essential phrases."

    For example, where AP would insist on:
    The company chairman, Henry Ford II, made the announcement.

    … in British papers, I might find it as:
    The company chairman, Henry Ford II made the announcement.

  24. kip said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

    For what it's worth, I was taught that the "Oxford comma" was proper punctuation in elementary school (in early 90s in NC,USA), although it was never referred to that way. I was also taught that possessive of a word ending in "s" is still 's (i.e. Jesus's instead of Jesus').

    Those two rules always confused me, because nearly every printed publication didn't follow them. I still do it the way I was taught in elementary school, though.

  25. Charles Belov said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

    While AP default style says to omit serial commas, it does give the out that the comma is to be used if omitting it could cause confusion. This is such a case.

    But I wonder how one would punctuate it if it really *was* the case that the banks were failed (transitive) to make it clear that it wasn't simply a case of an omitted serial comma after an intransitive verb.

  26. Faldone said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

    FWIW, Strunk and White advocates the Oxford comma but not the 's possessive for ancient names ending in S.

    [Yes, that's right. William Strunk firmly endorsed the Oxford comma (and on that, nearly all American publishers have erred by failing to follow his advice). For that piece of good sense, I believe Strunk's time in hell should be shortened by at least a year. —GKP]

  27. sleepnothavingness said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

    If the Oxford comma creates an ambiguity, there's always the cheat's way out – use an ampersand should recasting the sentence be beyond the pale!

    @Kip – there are two conventions for the "s" possessive: consistency is the watchword.

  28. Stephen Jones said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

    I think you simply have to read this aloud to get the punctuation right. Then stick the comma in where you pause.

  29. Stephen Jones said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

    Writing, in contrast, is produced asynchronously from reading and takes much longer to produce than to read

    Stendhal used to pace around the room dictating and had multiple secretaries writing it down.

    [Stendhal: the man who invented phoning it in. —GKP]

  30. Trent said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

    I think I'd rewrite it this way:

    "Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money, but when they failed, the bill had to be paid by the parent company, the client, and ultimately the taxpayer."

    The problem for me with

    "Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money, but when they failed, the parent company, the client, and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill."

    is that it took me a fraction of a second to realize that the comma after "failed" wasn't a mistake and another fraction to realize that "parent company," "the client," " and "the taxpayer" were items in a series.

    [Trent has an excellent intuition, and I think he's undoubtedly right. But guess what: he favors a passive clause (had to be paid by...) where The Economist an active one. So he would be disapproved of by Strunk and White, and would be marked with the wiggly green line by Microsoft Word. All of which shows us once again what idiocy is involved in the prejudice against passives. —GKP]

  31. Spectre-7 said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

    I'd tend to follow Sarah's lead above. Given the original sentence:

    Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money, but when they failed the parent company, the client and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.

    The easiest way to clear the ambiguity (IMO) would be to move the prepositional phrase to the end.

    Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money, but the parent company, the client, and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill when they failed.

    This perhaps introduces some slight ambiguity about who they in when they failed refers to, but I'm much more comfortable with that than the original. It also seems to better emphasize the failed part.

    Much to my embarrassment, I initially re-read the sentence a half-dozen times trying to figure how it might be misread. It was only when I finally continued through the rest of Professor Pullum's post that I realized I was misreading it. Much forehead slapping ensued.

  32. Craig Russell said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 10:48 pm

    I might just be the world's heaviest punctuator. I would have written:

    Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money, but, when they failed, the parent company, the client, and, ultimately, the taxpayer had to pay the bill.

    There is also a chance that (depending on my mood) I might have stuck a comma after "taxpayer", and maybe another couple to separate off "and fund managers". In fact, I might have even done this:

    Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money, but, when they failed, the parent company, the client–and, ultimately, the taxpayer–had to pay the bill.

    I love punctuating, and I love overpunctuating even more.

    [All those who think Craig overdoes the commas? I thought so. Sorry, Craig, Language Log disagrees. There is no appeal. —GKP]

  33. Aaron Davies said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 10:53 pm

    i once got in an argument with a teacher in third grade over the oxford comma–i'd already learned it at that point, and she'd apparently never heard of it. (i count it as a mark of the quality of the school that she came up to me later and apologized, having looked it up and found that i was correct.)

  34. marie-lucie said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

    SJ: Stendhal used to pace around the room dictating and had multiple secretaries writing it down.

    Are you sure it was Stendhal? It sounds more like Napoleon.

  35. comwave said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 12:08 am

    The last paragraph of this post is one of the best writings I've ever read. It makes my head much clearer. Also it makes me realize my own reason why I visit LL: "clear expression and easy comprehension."

    Clarity is one of the easily-forgotten purposes of language, which is frequently used to creat the opposite.

    I love the last paragraph, and I love its spirit even more.

    (Hat tip to Craig Russell for the "I love …, and I love … even more" construction.)

  36. Lazar said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 12:41 am

    Like Fiona, I'm familiar with the version of the Ayn Rand example in which the Oxford comma enhances copmrehension: "To my parents, Ayn Rand(,) and God." In any case, I consider myself a moderate: I omit the Oxford comma, but I do tend to use the "heavy punctuation" that Prof Pullum described. I would write the offending Economist sentence thus: "Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money, but when they failed, the parent company, the client and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.

  37. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 12:52 am

    The (probably apocryphal) book dedication "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God" has been discussed here, and also on Languagehat.

  38. James said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 4:40 am

    The poor comma is so overworked. I generally agree with the heavy style, but the problem with putting too many commas in is that you often have to think a second to figure out what job a comma is doing. (For example, see Craig Russell's version of the Economist sentence.) They separate elements of a series, they open parenthetical clauses, they close them, they separate independent (from each other) parts of sentences connected by a conjunction. No other punctuation mark is so overloaded. When the revolution comes, after I set up a base-ten system for measuring time, I'm going to introduce a few variants on the comma, at least the four for the jobs I mentioned above.

    Till then, what do we do? It's sad enough to have to change your wording from its divine spoken form so that it works well on the page. It's downright degrading to do it for the punctuation.

  39. Doc Rock said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 8:10 am

    I agree with your approach of separating all elements in a series with commas as good practice, because, otherwise, when series become encumbered with modifiers, disasters in effectiveness may occur. I taught "effective writing" to government agency writers for several years and can vouch for many examples of confusing and misleading attempts at communicating ideas or policies.

  40. Nicole said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 8:29 am

    I appreciate your clarification between rejecting prescriptivism outright, and rejecting those prescriptivist notions that a) do not contribute to communication/comprehension, b) are not practical in general use, and c) are self-defeating since the objective they are working towards is undermined by the rule itself. It reminds me of the often cited Winston Churchill quote, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” Obviously he was refuting the idea that sentence-end prepositions are synonymous with sloppy style and even though the "up" in this case is not a preposition but a phrasal verb particle, I think his point is well taken.

    [Oh, not again! Nicole, you have not been keeping up. Ben Zimmer discovered years ago that Churchill never said that! It's a dubious story that emerged in a newspaper in 1942 with no attribution to Churchill. See this guest post by Ben in 2004 before he joined Language Log's staff. For Ben's later discovery of the first attribution to Churchill (probably a false attribution) see this later post of Ben's. Wake up and smell the Language Log coffee, Nicole! —GKP]

  41. Noetica said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 8:43 am

    Enrol me as a diehard advocate of the serial comma, which I like to use even when it is not "locally" necessary. As the Oxford style gurus observe, if serial commas turn up whenever they are possible, readers know better what you mean when you leave a comma out.

    (I except certain proverbs and idioms with a distinctive and settled prosody, so characteristic that it trumps other considerations: "It's just a hop, step and a jump from here". In the first fifty Google hits for "just a hop step and a jump", only two hits have a comma after step.)

    For the sentence we are discussing, I like a semicolon and two extra commas.

    People are keen to reword such a sentence: often a distraction from the interesting issue that has been raised; and rewording is not always available, as when the task is to transcribe spoken words. But there is something else to fix in this case. Momentary stumbling blocks can accumulate, yielding seriously inefficient writing; and we must try to anticipate wildly wrong readings. So I suggest caution, and safe repetition rather than smooth use of pronouns:

    Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money; but when traders and managers failed, the parent company, the client, and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.

    After all, without context it is not immediately certain whom we are to exclude as the relevant candidates for failure: companies, clients, taxpayers, some mix of these, or even "other people".

  42. Arnold Zwicky said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 9:20 am

    jk: "Is there a British tendency to stint on commas? Seems to me I've frequently seen British journalists omit the trailing comma on what my AP Stylebook calls "non-essential phrases.""

    (These are called "appositives" or "supplementary phrases" in other sources.) I've certainly seen plenty of examples of the missing trailing comma, and I suspect that anyone who's done editing or dealt with student writing has too. But I don't think it's more common in British writing (journalism or other) than in American.

    It's easy to see how it happens. The first comma is needed to signal the beginning of the appositive. But then the sense of the sentence will determine the end of the appositive, so the trailing comma might seem unnecessary to the writer (and might not even be necessary for the reader).

  43. Franz Bebop said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 9:45 am

    Ibis redibis non morieris in bello.

  44. Nigel Greenwood said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 10:16 am

    @ JTE Elms: By cosmic coincidence, I happen to be a professional writer who has made my living for mumblety-mumble years

    This is OT, I know, but … To my UK ear that grammar sounds pretty tortuous, & comes close to suggesting some sort of split personality. Would it be ridiculously p12t to suggest either a professional writer, and have made my living or a professional writer who has made his/her living?

  45. Stephen Jones said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    Are you sure it was Stendhal? It sounds more like Napoleon.

    I heard this about the Chartreuse du Parme

    Other writers, including Barbara Cartland, and I believe Simenon, dictated their novels to a secretary.

    I don't know if Richardson wrote down Clarissa Harlowe in his own hand. If he did it certainly served him right.

  46. Stephen Jones said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    While we're on suggestive rewrites

    Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money, but when they failed(,) it was the parent company, the client(,) and ultimately the taxpayer who had to pay the bill.

  47. Tom said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    I'm not one to buy the don't-use-since-to-mean-because nonsense, but, in proofreading, I did once run across an example where where "since" misled the reader long enough into the sentence that I suggested changing it. The sentence read:

    "But above all, since even as early as 1775 the reading of all literary texts is colored by habits developed in reading novels, we are already predisposed to look for a story in the poem."

  48. Merri said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    I beg to disagree with James' (or James's) last sentence.
    speech and writing naturally obey different codes, because :

    - language (usually) is intended to inform your interlocutor(s) ;
    - there are several ways to convey that information ;
    - the conveying strong points of writing and speech aren't the same.
    What is efficient simply isn't the same in both forms of communication.

    Whence we often need to use some trick to supply the non-already-conveyed information.

    For example, spoken speech disambiguates (?) lists by the use of pauses ;writing has to do something more to emulate this (computer science meaning of the word). This is where Oxford commas and other devices come in. Word order is another useful gimmick.

    The other way round, you'd rather not use long words one after another in speech. Our ears are sequential access devices while our eyes are 'random' access.

    Disallowing clarity for philosophical reasons is simply not the way to make you understood.

  49. Ben Teague said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    I found this powerfully striking:

    "Look, I'm sorry, but if you understood about the meds my psychiatrist has put me on, you'd know why that adverb has to be exactly where I put it, after the to and before the verb."

    With deference, I propose that LL adopt the term "Pullum's Lemma" for such an argument.

  50. Mabon said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    Although I am not fond of the overly heavy punctuation that Craig Russell favors, there is one important gleaning to be had, IMHO. He nicely uses a pair of dashes to set off the phrase "and ultimately the taxpayer", which gives it emphasis and weight so that it stands out above the other elements in the list.
    I would recommend using an em dash, as well as spacing around it, but the way it appears in Craig's comment may just be a fluke of this program — I'm not sure. (But I did just figure out that it takes three hyphens to create an em dash in this program.)

  51. Nicholas Lawrence said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

    Completely agree about the punctuation issue. However, I find the first sentence of the article confusing, despite its helpful punctuation. I would find this easier to understand: When I write a sentence that begins with an adjunct in the form of a clause, I generally put a comma after the adjunct.

  52. Nicholas Lawrence said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

    Sorry, I have just realised that I am at best half-right. I still wonder if it should be sentence, but the rest of my comment is totally misconceived.

  53. Craig Russell said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

    @Mabon,

    I was unaware that the programming monkeys with the dashes. I was attempting to represent an em dash with two hyphens, which is my standard practice in ASCII.

    But, this comment forum's programming turned this into an EN dash, which is not what I had in mind at all (I should have put three hyphens).

    Incidentally, it's my understanding that the normal rule is NOT to include spaces around an em dash, but to include spaces on either side of an en dash if it's being used to separate elements as I was doing.

    Thus (with my new understanding of the substitutions this webpage will make for me) the correct formatting would, by my system, be:

    With en dashes:

    the parent company, the client — and, ultimately, the taxpayer — had to pay the bill.

    or, with em dashes:

    the parent company, the client—and, ultimately, the taxpayer—had to pay the bill.

  54. Craig Russell said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

    @GKP,

    No appeal, even if I use that therapist/meds argument? Drat. Well, I bet you probably don't approve of the comma after the "but" in the second paragraph of my above comment, either. So be it! I'm proud of my overpunctuating ways; I consider punctuation as much a part of one's personal writing style as word choice and arrangement. This is how I punctuate—deal with it, world!

  55. Jim said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 7:45 pm

    Now, now. I would never say anyone should fear me because I'm a Virgo. (I would never *say* that.) I just think that many people need to be reminded to respect Virgos, because we know stuff. Inherently.

    More realistically, though, the gut reaction to try and discard the Oxford comma request (demand!) can have two responses: acquiesce (and you get no comma) or push back. People tend to feel that this is more a matter of emotion and preference than fact, so they don't want a lecture or a debate or an example. And thus the push back of "Don't mess with me" provides the push back needed to shut down their emotion-based reaction.

  56. Aradheya said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 1:12 am

    The comma is that first sentence to illustrates practice . There are some writers who studiously avoid such a comma . But it is important for an article . I think the maintainers of the rule unjustified both in terms of what founds in a good writing . Commas is very important to complete an article .

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