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Essential and Nonessential Elements, Part II

Here is the rule again, in case you missed it: Essential elements in a sentence should not be enclosed in commas. Nonessential elements in a sentence should be enclosed by commas.

Last time, we applied the rule to clauses. Today we’ll look at essential and nonessential phrases (a phrase is two or more related words with no subject and verb).

Let’s start with this sentence: The guy seated next to me wouldn’t stop talking. There are no commas because seated next to me is an essential phrase. It identifies which “guy” we mean. Without it we’d have only The guy wouldn’t stop talking, which doesn’t tell us much.

But consider this: Ezra Blung, the guy seated next to me, wouldn’t stop talking. Because we now know the man’s name, the guy seated next to me becomes nonessential. As the commas signify, the phrase contains supplementary information, and the sentence would have the same meaning without it.

Commas are easy for some to overlook, but an omitted or out-of-place comma can change a sentence’s meaning. Here is an example: Complete the job, as directed. The comma after job tells us that the phrase as directed is nonessential. The sentence says that you have been directed to do a job, and implies that how you do it is up to you. But what if we took out the comma: Complete the job as directed. Now as directed is essential, and the sentence is saying something more severe: Do the work, and make sure you do it the way you were told to do it.

Remember that essential and nonessential are technical terms. Some authorities prefer restrictive and nonrestrictive, perhaps to avoid the sort of confusion that may result from analyzing a sentence like this: A comma, which never ends a sentence, signals a pause.

In that example, which never ends a sentence is nonessential, and the crux of the sentence is, A comma signals a pause. That is true, but a period also signals a pause. Perhaps the key difference between commas and periods is that a comma never ends a sentence.

So how could such an essential fact be termed “nonessential” in a sentence that describes a comma? It’s because we are using grammatical terminology: nonessential refers to sentence structure only.

Information essential to human understanding is often found in phrases and clauses that are technically nonessential, as seen in the comma sentence above. But that sentence would be improved by making its less important fact nonessential: A comma, which signals a pause, never ends a sentence.

Memo to fledgling writers: If you find that you’ve disclosed an essential fact in a technically nonessential phrase or clause, you may want to write a new sentence.

 

Pop Quiz

Identify and punctuate (if needed) the italicized groups of words below. Are they clauses or phrases? Are they essential or nonessential? Answers are below.

1. People demanding special treatment make me angry.
2. His brother who is a health nut runs five miles a day.
3. A friend of mine who lives in Boston loves the seafood there.
4. Alan Lomax always fascinated by roots music first recorded the bluesman Lead Belly.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. People demanding special treatment make me angry. (essential phrase, no punctuation)
2. His brother, who is a health nut, runs five miles a day. (nonessential clause, commas added)
3. A friend of mine who lives in Boston loves the seafood there. (essential clause, no punctuation)
4. Alan Lomax, always fascinated by roots music, first recorded the bluesman Lead Belly. (nonessential phrase, commas added)

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Posted on Tuesday, August 26, 2014, at 1:04 pm


Essential, but Is It Important?

Commas are tricky little devils. Anyone who wants to use them correctly will at some point encounter the terms essential and nonessential. The rule is that so-called essential elements should not be enclosed in commas. Conversely, nonessential elements require commas fore and aft.

By “elements” we mean clauses, phrases, and even single words. Today we will focus on the difference between essential and nonessential clauses (a clause always contains a subject and verb).

Consider this sentence: People who stay out in the sun too long get a bad case of sunburn. Note the lack of commas. That’s because the clause who stay out in the sun too long is essential. Without it the sentence is silly: People get a bad case of sunburn.

Look at what happens if we fence off the essential clause with commas: People, who stay out in the sun too long, get a bad case of sunburn. The commas isolate people from the clause that explains which people we are talking about. That’s as misguided as writing The book, I’m reading, is good.

Now look at this sentence: Barton Blain, who once threw a punch at the mayor, ate corn flakes for breakfast. Unlike people in the previous paragraph, Barton Blain is already specifically identified. That makes the clause who once threw a punch at the mayor nonessential, requiring commas.

Do not be distracted by this usage of essential and nonessential. That Blain assaulted an elected official is certainly surprising, even alarming, but it is not essential in the grammatical sense; it is added information, and its removal would not alter the sentence’s basic point: that Blain had corn flakes for breakfast. Maybe the writer was being grimly humorous, or was trying to shock us, or—who knows? Our only concern here is that the writer correctly used commas to set off a nonessential clause.

So anyone who would master comma usage must realize that the terms essential and nonessential have nothing to do with values or ethics and everything to do with making a sentence say what its author intends.

 

Pop Quiz

Are the following sentences punctuated properly? Answers are at the end of the newsletter.

1. The carpenter, who fixed our floor, is the one I’d recommend.
2. I’m talking about Derek Jones who climbed Mount Whitney, not Derek Jones who swam the English Channel.
3. A ten-year-old girl, who doesn’t obey her parents, is headed for trouble.

 

Pop Quiz Answers
1. The carpenter who fixed our floor is the one I’d recommend. (remove commas)
2. I’m talking about Derek Jones who climbed Mount Whitney, not Derek Jones who swam the English Channel. (CORRECT)
3. A ten-year-old girl who doesn’t obey her parents is headed for trouble. (remove commas)

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Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2014, at 11:14 am


(All About) Parentheses

The singular form is parenthesis, but the plural parentheses is the word you’re more likely to see. Both words have a wide range of related meanings, and what some people identify as a parenthesis, others call parentheses.

So let’s keep it simple. For our purposes, a parenthesis is one of a pair of curved marks that look like this: ( ), and parentheses are both marks.

A symbol, number, word, phrase, or clause that is in parentheses explains, supplements, or comments on something in the sentence. Material in parentheses can be removed from a sentence without changing that sentence’s overall meaning or grammatical integrity.

Note the use of is in this sentence: My friend (and her brother) is coming today. The subject is My friend. Despite appearances, parentheses are never part of the subject. Remove them and we’d have two subjects, My friend and her brother, which would require the verb are coming. The use of parentheses is a clue that the writer was more concerned about the friend than about the brother.

Parentheses, long dashes, and commas are the three punctuation marks that indicate an interruption in the flow of a sentence. (Some might add semicolons, which can turn two simple sentences into a single, more complex sentence: Their eyes met; she smiled.)

Commas, the least intrusive of the three, signal the presence of relevant but nonessential data. Long dashes either expand upon the main point or take a slight detour from it. Parentheses by their very appearance let the reader know that the information fenced off by those vertical curves is a departure from the rest of the sentence. To illustrate:

Blaine, who was born in 1797 and died in 1860, did not live to see the Civil War.

Blaine—he was born in 1797 and died in 1860—did not live to see the Civil War.

Blaine (1797-1860) did not live to see the Civil War.

Sometimes the choice is clear. For instance, you’d never see this sentence: Blaine—1797-1860—did not live to see the Civil War. But it is also true that a writer’s use of one of these marks instead of another is often a matter of personal taste.

Parentheses can be used to form a separate sentence, as here: I hoped my friend was coming. (He canceled at the last minute.) But the writer could also have done this: I hoped my friend was coming (he canceled at the last minute). Note the placement of the period; if parentheses end a sentence, the period goes after the closing parenthesis.

Commas virtually always follow parentheses rather than precede them. This sentence is incorrect: When he got home, (it was already dark outside) he fixed dinner. Make it When he got home (it was already dark outside), he fixed dinner.

Writers have a lot of leeway with parentheses, as long as they heed a few simple guidelines. Used shrewdly (and sparingly!), parentheses add color, nuance, and spice to your writing.

 

Pop Quiz

Correct any sentence that needs it.

1. When Tony showed up, (he was right on time) we had a long talk.

2. LaDonna (along with Alicia, Dwayne, and Alphonse) all showed up at once.

3. Do not exceed 25 mph (you will be cited.)

4. After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water (he really needed it!)

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. When Tony showed up (he was right on time), we had a long talk.

2. LaDonna, along with Alicia, Dwayne, and Alphonse, all showed up at once.

3. Do not exceed 25 mph (you will be cited).
OR Do not exceed 25 mph. (You will be cited.)

4. After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water (he really needed it!).
OR After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water. (He really needed it!)

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Posted on Sunday, March 23, 2014, at 9:25 pm


The Case of the Missing Hyphen, Part 2

We thank all of you who took the time to respond to the question we posed two weeks ago: Should it be e-mail or email? There were eloquent arguments for both sides, but email won decisively. “Time to join the 21st century,” wrote one gentleman, who added, “and I’m 61 years old.”

Many of you chose email for pragmatic reasons, like this respondent: “In all practicality, email will win. On my smartphone, anyone typing the word e-mail has to shift to a second, then a third screen to complete the word.”

What this amounts to, said another reader, is that “texting is creating a whole new language.” We find ourselves rattled by that thought.

If, as one of you wrote, “The only quick punctuation mark I have on my smartphone is the period,” then this helps explain the indifference to hyphens, commas, apostrophes—and capital letters after periods—that we nitpickers are noting with ever-increasing dismay. Why should advances in technology have to come at the expense of the English language?

Other readers took the long view. “When the use of a particular prefix with a particular word is new, the hyphen is a useful link,” wrote one. “Once people become used to the new combination, the hyphen will be dropped.” History bears out this astute observation. Let’s look at some other familiar words that have followed the same pattern.

Goodbye: In 1968, Random House’s American College Dictionary demanded a hyphen, and preferred good-by to good-bye. The 1980 American Heritage dictionary agreed. But by 2006, American Heritage preferred goodbye, although it also listed the hyphenated choices.

Passerby: It started out as passer-by. The Associated Press Stylebook still recommends the hyphen, but that probably won’t last. The American Heritage dictionary already gave passerby top billing eight years ago.

Fundraiser: After years of recommending fund-raiser, the Associated Press’s manual dropped the hyphen seven years or so ago.

Baseball: The one-word form we have today did not prevail until less than 100 years ago. It was base ball in the early nineteenth century and base-ball in the early twentieth century.

Grass-roots (adjective): The American Heritage dictionary, Webster’s New World (fourth edition), and the Associated Press all agree on the hyphen, but grassroots is coming on strong.

So who are we to flout the inevitable? From now on, we’ll grit our teeth and write email.

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Posted on Monday, March 17, 2014, at 8:08 pm


Media Watch 1

Several weeks ago, a Vatican-endorsed medal honoring Pope Francis had to be recalled because Jesus was spelled “Lesus.” Just last week, a political placard at a Washington, D.C., press conference spelled filibuster “fillibuster” and against “againts.” In light of these disgraces, it seems the right time to reopen our Media Malfeasance file…

• “They have arrested two suspects, neither of whom are British.” This decades-old problem is only getting worse. To journalists it may concern: The pronoun neither, like either and each, is always singular. Make it “neither of whom is British.”

• “Prop. 32 is an initiative to curb union’s influence.” Ah, apostrophes. Note that one could also say “to curb the influence of unions”—that’s unions, plural. Plural nouns ending in s show possession with the apostrophe after the s, not before. So make it “curb unions’ influence.”

• “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” Looks all right, you say? The problem is the unnecessary question mark. “Guess” is an imperative—a direct order, not the first word in a question.

• “Rebecca Solnit’s book, Unfathomable City, was celebrated last week.” Remove the commas. This is slipshod editing. With the commas, the sentence means that Unfathomable City is the only book Solnit has ever written. In fact, she has written over a dozen.

The rule is that commas set off nonessential information. If the author has written only one book, its title is not essential to the sentence: “Rebecca Solnit’s [only] book, Unfathomable City, was celebrated last week.” But since she has written several, we must be told which book directly—no commas. Similarly, The actor, Robert De Niro, was there is incorrect with commas. But The president of the United States, Barack Obama, was there is correct.

As writers’ skills decline, so do readers’ standards. The acerbic avant-garde musician Frank Zappa (1940-1993) once described a rock ’n’ roll magazine as “written by people who can’t write for people who can’t read.” Were he alive today, Zappa might not limit his assessment to rock-music journalism.

 

Pop Quiz

See if you can spot the flaws in these actual quotations from the media.

1. “…shot himself with a riffle.”

2. “Is it fair to compare the two crisis?”

3. “It does so many other things that drives up the cost.”

4. “Everyone has come out looking badly.”

5. “Dow closes at new record high.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “…shot himself with a rifle.”

2. “Is it fair to compare the two crises?”

3. “It does so many other things that drive up the cost.”

4. “Everyone has come out looking bad.”

5. “Dow closes at record high.” (“new record” is a redundancy)

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Posted on Monday, November 25, 2013, at 1:36 pm