Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Clause & Comma

Jonathan asks whether we shouldn't "distinguish between commas separating whole clauses and those merely separating words in a series" when deciding whether to stop and breathe at them. (Jonathan asks, "Shouldn't you distinguish between commas separating whole clauses and those merely separating words in a series?" Notice the comma after "asks" here, which is not used with "whether".)

Items on a list are separated by short pauses. As an exercise, exagerating this pause by breathing can reveal what they are doing. The CMS (6.19) and Lasch, for example, agree that a comma should precede the conjunction at the end of a series. That this implies a pause can be seen in the following list:

Clegg (2002), Jones (2003), and Fleming and Spicer (2004) are often cited in mainstream organization theory.

The comma (the pause, the breath) helps us to distinguish the "and" that separates the last two items in the series and the "and" that is part of the last item.

Another kind of series arises when we use several adjectives to modify a noun.

Ron is a careful, thorough scholar.

But the comma (and the pause) are not used "if the noun and the adjective immediately preceding it are conceived as a unit" (CMS 6.39).

Karl is a famous social scientist.

But Jonathan is right that the pausing, breathing comma is mainly intended to separate whole clauses. In defense of my epigram, however, I did say, "Try reading what you have written out loud. Breathe at the commas." That is, do it as an experiment every once in a while, not necessarily every time you read. One of the reasons I say this is that commas in Danish work very differently. When I read out loud to my children in Danish I sometimes ruin the sentence by pausing at a comma that serves a purely grammatical function.

Let me conclude with a word on using commas with "not only" (CMS 6.41).

Recent work in organization theory, not only subscribes to a post-structuralist ontological position, but also pursues an increasingly radical politics of human liberation.

[Update: as Jonathan points out in the comments, this may not be an especially good example of what I am trying to show. Separating the noun from the verb phrase with a comma was ill-advised. I was aiming for something more like: "Recent work in organization theory follows a post-structuralist strategy, not only under the banners of the standard epistemological and ontological arguments, but also in pursuit of an increasingly radical politics of human liberation."]

The commas here allow your reader to clearly distinguish the two clauses. Note that they are "subscribes to a post-structuralist ontological position" and "pursues an increasingly radical politics of human liberation". Here all of "... , not only ..., but also ..." serves to set off a clause that could be removed without undermining the grammar of the sentence:

Recent work in organization theory follows a post-structuralist strategy in pursuit of an increasingly radical politics of human liberation.

I have no idea how I am going to make a video post on this subject.

3 comments:

Jonathan said...

I don't know if the initial noun clause, should be separated from the verb phrase with a comma. I personally would write that "not only .. but also" sentence with no commas at all, or recast it to make the clauses shorter.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I think you are right.

I was trying to construct a sentence on the basis of the example in the CMS (6.41):

They marched to Washington, not only armed with petitions and determined to get their senators' attention, but also hoping to demonstrate their solidarity with one another.

I should have written something like:

Recent work in organization theory subscribes, not only to a post-structuralist ontological position, but also to an increasingly radical politics of human liberation.

Or still better:

Recent work in organization theory subscribes to a post-structuralist position, not only under the banners of the standard epistemological and ontological arguments, but also in pursuit of an increasingly radical politics of human liberation.

Thomas Basbøll said...

And we can even fix that warlike metaphor:

Recent work in organization theory follows a post-structuralist strategy, not only under the banners of the standard epistemological and ontological arguments, but also in pursuit of an increasingly radical politics of human liberation.