7.21.2020

Bracket Both Ends

As the most flexible mark of punctuation, the comma is the one used most variably. Some authors like lots of them, not only for strict grammar purposes but for frequent emphasis as well. Some writers seem to hate them, as many readers left adrift in a roving sentence can attest. One aspect of them is misused by authors of all stripes. That is the failure to put commas at both ends of a word or phrase that is not a necessary part of a sentence.

The most common mistake occurs with appositives. In simplest form they are two nouns that serve the same function in a sentence. An example is “the writer Colson Whitehead.” The error occurs when one of the nouns is nonrestrictive. That term also seems frightening until you consider what it means. A restrictive word or clause means that it is necessary to understanding the sentence. We wouldn’t know what writer you are referring to until you add Colson Whitehead. But a nonrestrictive word or clause is merely an addition. “My mother, Claudine, didn’t like mysteries.” I have only one mother, so I must bracket off her name, front and back, because the sentence could just as easily read: “My mother didn’t like mysteries.”

When the purview is expanded to clauses, the neglect of starting and ending commas can cause reader to blunder through a sentence. “The arbor, where the trees form a corridor of leaning timbers, like the nave of a cathedral, is one of the charming views at Monticello.” Let’s take out the comma after “arbor” and see what happens. “The arbor where the trees form a corridor of leaning timbers, like the nave of a cathedral, is one of the charming views at Monticello.” The meaning of the sentence has changed, because now the phrase “where the trees form a corridor of leaning timbers” is restrictive. We are instructed to seek out that arbor. But what if we already know the arbor being referenced, because it was identified in the previous sentence? Now you are confusing the reader, because they are left to wonder if the two arbors in the two sentences are the same. You must bracket both ends. I know the arbor, and yes, what a delightful added attraction to it.

Grammar is very straightforward. You follow the rules so that everyone is on the same page. People understand what the heck you are talking about. And your editor can sleep at nights, knowing that clarity has prevailed.

Exercise: If you are confused, ask yourself two questions. First, is the word or phrase necessary to complete the sentence? If not, you probably should think about commas. Second, is the word or phrase necessary to identify the object in question? If it is, you don’t need a comma.

“People, unprotected by their roles, become isolated in beauty and intellect and illness and confusion.”
—Richard Avedon


Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.




No comments:

Post a Comment

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.