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Comma Chameleon

I realize that on the grand scale of interesting things, punctuation is pretty far down the list. (In a recent survey, it was in a dead heat with stovepipes, just behind pocket lint.)

Punctuation is a dying art. I’m not sure whether this is the writers’ or the readers’ fault, but I mostly blame the writers. It’s as if chefs got careless about seasoning.

Periods can present problems, but they’re fairly low-maintenance, because most people know when to stop. Not so with semicolons. Many abuse them; few can even explain how they differ from colons. Apostrophes are increasingly misused or ignored. I’m no fan of McDonald’s, but at least the company wears its apostrophe proudly (unlike apostates such as Walgreens).

Hyphens have become a mind-numbing mystery, rarely used where they’re needed—and often wrongly placed where a long dash should be. Parentheses confuse a lot of people (do periods go inside or outside?). Question marks seem easy, but let me ask if you think the one at the end of this sentence is correct? Because it’s not.

But today I want to home in on the comma. Lately I’ve noticed a tendency in newspapers and magazines to reflexively inject a comma when a noun is described by two adjectives—something we do in English all the time. Trouble is, you don’t always want a comma in a two-adjectives-plus-noun construction. For example: a shiny, antique Rolls. I just can’t buy that comma. Here’s one I do buy: an honest, hard-working man.

It’s a subtle distinction: Are both adjectives equally focused on the noun (he’s an honest man and a hard-working man), or does the first adjective describe a cohesive adjective-noun unit (antique Rolls). I reject a comma because shiny applies to antique Rolls as if that phrase were a single word. How silly would it be to write a shiny, thing?

To get technical, we’re talking here about coordinate adjectives. A useful guideline: the comma is likely if it’s a comfortable substitute for and. You’d call a man “honest and hard-working,” but it sounds clunky to call a car “shiny and antique.”

Here are some recent ill-advised print-media commas: “Modest, working-class suburb” (the working-class suburb is modest; the comma is superfluous). “A slim, 30-year-old bartender” (no comma: “slim” further describes the 30-year-old mixologist). “The original, 1879 site” (that comma is too bizarre for comment).

Admittedly, there’s a lot of gray area here. The writer’s intent must be analyzed, and in some cases interpretations will vary. Here’s a two-in-one-sentence example: “from a confused drug-riddled adolescence to a final, eye-catching impression of her.” I’d put a comma after “confused” and no comma after “final.”

I’m glad when journalists promote traditional punctuation, but comma overcompensation is as inadvisable as any other kind.

Tom Stern

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by Jane Straus, Lester Kaufman, and Tom Stern

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