Annals of comma placement

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John Muccigrosso writes:

What with all the foofaraw over Austen's editing, I thought you might enjoy this screen shot of the YouTube version of Disney's 1943 "Victory through Airpower".


  1. John Cowan said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    I don't have any trouble with a non-restrictive reading here, so I see no punctuation problem.

    [(myl) I think the issue is the comma after past.]

  2. Seth Johnson said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 9:21 am

    Is "in the past" supposed to be parenthetical? If so, there should be another comma after "country."

  3. Erik Zyman Carrasco said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 9:35 am

    I know it's not standard to separate subject and verb with a comma, but I've seen at least one instance where it was clearly motivated—probably by the unconscious desire for it to be read the way the writer was presumably hearing it in his head, namely with a topic contour (B accent) on the subject. Perhaps this author was mentally hearing a lengthening of the end of the word past (which I believe would very often be perceived as a pause).

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 9:58 am

    In 1943, many writers would have learned writing by imitating writers of the 19th century, for whom this sort of construction was natural (as has been discussed many times on this board).

    I continue to see this sort of comma placement among young adults in 2010. I suspect it is a consequence of partially-remembered rules. Perhaps there is also a sort of linguistic "instinct" that recognizes the separation of subject and verb by the phrase "in the past," finds it suspect, and seeks to remedy the perceived problem with punctuation, again without quite remembering how to do it.

    I don't know if this sort of thinking would have been operative in 1943.

  5. Dick Margulis said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 10:28 am

    The greater the number of hands that touch text between author and reader, the likelier it is for someone—a graphic artist, for example—to subvert the author's intent through miscorrection. This becomes a problem when we try to draw conclusions about the author's education, as graphic artists are, on average, highly unreliable narrators of contemporary practice.

    Now if someone could dig up the original script for "Victory Through Air Power" (or "Victory through Airpower," as the case may be), there might be something to discuss here.

  6. Andrew Sanger said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 10:31 am

    It's impossible to read this intelligibly either aloud or to oneself. Either no commas, or two. It also needs to get rid of the "has". Thus:

    Our country, in the past, struggled through many…

  7. Cecily said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    I wonder if it was originally drafted as "In the past, our country struggled…" and hence whether the comma is an artefact of rearranging the words.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    How about the comma between 'courage' and 'who?'

  9. Paul said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 11:21 am

    @ Andrew Sanger: Unintelligible? Really? If so, how are you able to reinterpret with correct punctuation?

  10. Alan said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 11:29 am

    Is there any difference in meaning between "Our country has struggled through many storms of anguish, difficulty and doubt" , "In the past, our country has struggled through many storms of anguish, difficulty and doubt" and "Our country, in the past, has struggled through many storms of anguish, difficulty and doubt" ?

    I prefer the first.

    Andrew, do you think there is no difference in meaning if the word "has" is omitted? Does leaving it out imply that the struggle is over?

  11. Plegmund said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    So… without his usual editor, Mickey Mouse would never achieved his enduring reputation as one of the creative masters of the English language?

  12. Spell Me Jeff said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    I think Andrew is pointing out the technical incongruity with "has" and "in the past."

    Intelligibility, of course, is a whole nuther thing, as has been discussed quite often on this board.

  13. The Ridger said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    Well, given that in 1943 our country was going through another struggle, I think the "has" is well motivated and adds to the meaning: in the past we HAVE struggled and we ARE stuggling now, and just as we HAVE in the past won, we WILL win this one, too.

  14. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    If "in the past" is construed to be an interval rather than a moment or summation, then "has" works well enough. To Paul: deleting both commas rescues the sentences.

  15. Kylopod said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

    This does violate standard usage, but I don't see how it causes any ambiguity. Did I miss something?

  16. Tom said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    Also, as this is a text from the US, I would have expected an Oxford comma before 'and doubt'.

  17. A Reader said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

    Didn't even notice an issue with the first sentence on the first read.

  18. Mr Punch said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

    Comma usage is still changing, of course. I (US, 63) was taught that there should be no comma between adjectives if their order cannot be changed; but now in well-edited publications I constantly see things like "little, red schoolhouse."

  19. Lazar said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    Mr Punch: As a 21-year-old American, my instinct would be to omit the comma in phrases such as those (although I haven't considered what the exact criteria should be). An example that springs to my mind, well known to the Xbox-playing crowd, is "big stupid jellyfish".

  20. GeorgeW said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    @Mr Punch: "I (US, 63) was taught that there should be no comma between adjectives if their order cannot be changed."

    I would be interested if anyone has a reference to an article or book that addresses the rules about the order of adjectives. Why "little red schoolhouse" but not "*red little schoolhouse?"

    Sorry for the divergence from the main topic at hand.

    [(myl) A survey of older literature and some useful discussion is here.]

  21. MJ said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    @GeorgeW See, e.g., Edward Johnson, "Adjectives and Adjective Chains," in _The Handbook of Good English_, 67-68.

  22. empty said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    Those who would do away with "has": would they also make a corresponding change on the second sentence? ("we have always been saved" becoming "we were always saved"?)

    I myself would consider "Over the years our country has struggled … "

  23. JMM said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 6:01 pm

    For me a "little, red school house" is very different from a "little red school house". The first could have many rooms, be built out of bricks, but be small relative to the other schools in the area. The latter is one room, wooden, and has a bell tower. It's an icon of the American rural past (which may have been rare or nonexistent) and early Warner Brothers cartoons.

    To the main point, the Mouse was young then, surely one comma error can be forgiven.

  24. Nelida said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

    I vote for "In the past, our country….". To my mind this is the more idiomatic rendition.

  25. GeorgeW said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

    @myl & MJ: Thanks for the references. The PDF is in my printer as I write. And, I will check into the book reference.

  26. GeorgeW said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

    @JMM: My reaction is similar. The pause between the adjectives signified by the comma gives a different connotation. The former (with the comma) suggests two independent adjectives. The latter (with no comma) is more like a compound noun.

  27. John said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 11:07 pm

    I sent this in because of the recent Austen business, though find it interesting that most posters aren't talking about it in that context at all.
    For my part, I imagine that a Disney film, even in 1943, would have been gone over pretty carefully and also that the first comma is so easy to see, sitting there on the first line, and so jarring to modern editorial sensibilities, that it must not have been jarring at all to our revered ancestors of the greatest generation and their forefathers.

  28. MJ said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 11:29 pm

    @John –You'd be surprised at how often "pubic" instead of "public" ends up in print. Even with the most meticulous copyediting and proofreading, errors–even apparently glaring ones–sneak past. In the case at hand, although it's possible the comma is an artifact of nineteenth-century punctuation, I think it's more likely it's just a typo.

  29. Mr. Fnortner said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 11:42 pm

    To JMM's point, "soft, Corinthian leather" says that the leather is both soft and Corinthian, independently. "Soft Corinthian leather", however, is Corinthian leather that is soft. The independence implied by the commas suggests that at least one adjective is optional and that deleting an adjective would still result in a true statement. If the expression had been "soft, Corinthian, leather seats", deletion might result in this strangeness: "soft, Corinthian seats." In my opinion, writing adjectives without commas argues strongly for the necessity of all the adjectives in a string.

  30. the other Mark P said,

    December 1, 2010 @ 4:06 am

    I read a reasonable amount of material written in the 1920's and 1930's.

    I then transcribe some of that material and put it on my website, which raises interesting editorial issues. If I leave the different standards of punctuation as it was, people think I am illiterate and have transcribed it wrongly. If I correct it I'm not being faithful to the original. I tend to correct only the most glaring differences to avoid jarring the reader. (The last document was a shocker. I couldn't work out why the writer was using such convoluted phrases. Then I realised he was avoiding "split infinitives"! Never mind it lead to ugly writing.)

    What I never imagine when I edit those documents is that they were doing it wrongly. They just wrote differently back then. There's no need to add an extra comma after "our country". There is a need to realise it is a historical piece.

    Unless you compulsively modernise Shakespeare, that is.

  31. Graeme said,

    December 1, 2010 @ 6:44 am

    Pedantically I quickly gathered the comma problems. But I can just as easily hear a slightly Churchillian voice breaking for effect in both places (to stress 'past' and 'courage').

    Am I right in saying this isn't so much written to be read as written to emphasize the reading?

    And am I alone in dawning to the fact that newsreel screens like this equate to PowerPoint version 0.0?!

  32. Andrew Sanger said,

    December 1, 2010 @ 8:12 am

    @Paul Of course, I did not mean it was actually unintelligible. All sorts of gibberish is intelligible. I said it was impossible to *read* it intelligibly. Try reading the sentence aloud with just the single comma, and you'll see what I mean!

  33. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Annals of comma placement [] on said,

    December 1, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

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  34. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    December 1, 2010 @ 11:10 pm

    Some guidance on adjectives and punctuation:

    Adjectives: C. Coordinate Adjectives, on p. 19 of Garner's American Usage (2003 edition — there's a newer edition, but my copy is elsewhere).

    Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition:
    Section 5.80 Basic rules (of adjectives), p. 168
    Section 5.92 Phrasal adjectives, p.171
    Section 6.39 Comma or no comma between adjectives, p. 250
    Section 6.40 Repeated adjective, p. 250

    These are style manuals, so they may be more prescriptive than descriptive, but there is useful information about handling strings of adjectives in a manner that sounds familiar to American English speakers.

    A Writer's Reference (3rd edition), by Diana Hacker, has a lot of information for people whose first language is not English. Her guide to grammar and manuscript preparation includes a list of the order in which adjectives should generally be placed:
    T3-d Place adjectives and adverbs with care., p. 185; chart on p. 186.

    Here is the order she advises (I have mostly left out her examples):
    Usual order of cumulative adjectives
    article or other noun marker
    evaluative word (attractive, dedicated …)
    length or shape
    material (silver, walnut, marble…)
    noun/adjective (tree as in "tree house")
    noun being modified

    P1-d Use a comma between coordinate adjectives not joined by "and." Do not use a comma between cumulative adjectives., p. 195

    Her example of cumulative adjectives is "Three large gray shapes moved slowly toward us." and she says "these modifiers lean on one another, piggyback style, with each modifying a larger word group."

  35. Aaron Davies said,

    December 4, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

    the first thing that occurs to me upon actually reading it out loud is some sort of time travel interpretation….

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