When com­mas are a mat­ter of state

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - ADVICE - JUNE CASAGRANDE a Word, Please ▶ Junetcn@aol.com.

Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, it seems, is a lit­tle ob­ses­sive about com­mas. Ac­cord­ing to press re­ports, he’s been send­ing out di­rec­tives to staff that they should fol­low cer­tain strict guide­lines. Here’s one ex­am­ple of in­cor­rect comma use he sent to staffers.

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion is com­mit­ted to achiev­ing a last­ing and com­pre­hen­sive peace agree­ment, and re­mains op­ti­mistic that progress can be made.”

Pom­peo said that’s an er­ror be­cause there should be “no comma when sin­gle sub­ject with com­pound pred­i­cate.”

I found Pom­peo’s choice a lit­tle odd. So I asked my edi­tor friends on Twit­ter what they thought. Their an­swers var­ied, with some sup­port­ing Pom­peo’s choice, oth­ers not.

The Gram­mar Geek replied: “I would re­move that comma but wouldn’t put up a fight if the au­thor pre­ferred leav­ing it in.”

My friend Karen Con­lin replied to Gram­mar Geek: “Same. Not a hill I would die on.”

And in those few sim­ple words, Con­lin nailed what had been nag­ging at me: Why fuss over this par­tic­u­lar comma is­sue? Why plant your flag on that hill?

It’s true that, in gen­eral, you shouldn’t put a comma be­fore a con­junc­tion in a com­pound pred­i­cate. A com­pound pred­i­cate means two or more verbs shared by the same sub­ject: “Bob took a shower and walked the dog.” There’s no comma af­ter “shower” be­cause you don’t need one to sep­a­rate it from “walked the dog.” Bob is do­ing both and the rules say that, in such cases, no comma.

If the sec­ond verb had its own sub­ject, that would be dif­fer­ent.

“Bob took a shower, and he walked the dog.” When we in­sert “he” we cre­ate a com­plete clause: “he walked.” Com­plete clauses have a dif­fer­ent rule: Use a comma be­fore an “and” that con­nects them. But there’s an ex­cep­tion. “If the clauses are very short and closely con­nected, the comma may be omit­ted,” the Chicago Man­ual of Style ad­vises. In other words, if you didn’t like that comma in “Bob took a shower, and he walked the dog,” you can chuck it out. I would.

But that’s not how Pom­peo’s sen­tence worked. In “The ad­min­is­tra­tion is com­mit­ted to achiev­ing a last­ing and com­pre­hen­sive peace agree­ment, and re­mains …” that sec­ond verb is shar­ing the sub­ject, “the ad­min­is­tra­tion,” with the first verb, “is.” If they had just squeezed in the word

“it” be­fore “re­mains,” the rules of in­de­pen­dent clauses would ap­ply. But they didn’t, so no comma.

In other words, Pom­peo has a point. The comma he says is wrong does seem to defy the rules for com­pound pred­i­cates.

But here’s the thing (that you knew was com­ing): It’s not that sim­ple. Pom­peo’s own fa­vorite rule book, the Chicago Man­ual of Style, ex­plains the mat­ter this way: “A comma is not nor­mally used be­tween the parts of a com­pound pred­i­cate. … A comma may oc­ca­sion­ally be needed, how­ever, to pre­vent a mis­read­ing.”

And here’s the ad­vice with which Chicago be­gins its whole sec­tion on com­mas: “Ef­fec­tive use of the comma in­volves good judg­ment, with ease of read­ing the end in view.”

In other words, this comma rule isn’t hard-and-fast.

Now here’s the As­so­ci­ated Press Style­book: “Clar­ity is the big­gest rule. … If omit­ting a comma could lead to con­fu­sion or mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion, then use the comma.” For ex­am­ple, AP would say not to use a comma in “Their sand­wich of­fer­ings in­clude tur­key, tuna and ham.” But when an ex­tra “and” makes things too weird, AP says, throw in an­other comma: “Their sand­wich of­fer­ings in­clude tur­key, tuna, and peanut but­ter and jelly.”

Some edi­tors on Twit­ter ar­gued that the comma in Pom­peo’s sen­tence aids un­der­stand­ing, es­pe­cially be­cause the sec­ond verb, “re­mains,” is also a noun, which could throw the reader off kil­ter. For this edi­tor, it’s a tossup. So I would prob­a­bly stick with the writer’s first in­stinct.

Don’t use a comma in a com­pound pred­i­cate … un­less you think it makes the sen­tence bet­ter. Ei­ther way, don’t get too pushy about it. This is not a hill you want to die on.

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