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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


People vs. Persons

The noun person has two plurals: persons and people. Most people don’t use persons, but the sticklers say there are times when we should. “When we say persons,” says Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage, “we are thinking, or ought to be, of ones—individuals with identities; whereas when we say people we should mean a large group, an indefinite and anonymous mass.”

The traditional rule is that persons is used for either an exact or a small number. So we might estimate that a hundred people were there. Or if we know the exact number, we’d say ninety-eight persons were there.

As for “a small number,” how small is “small”? In Words on Words, John B. Bremner suggests fewer than fifty. Theodore M. Bernstein concurs, saying in The Careful Writer that fifty people is acceptable. To Bernstein, two people is nearly unthinkable but 4,381 persons is “quite proper.”

Meanwhile, the language moves on. In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner calls the persons-people distinction “pedantic.” Garner says that twelve persons on the jury “sounds stuffy” and that most Americans today would say people instead. Roy H. Copperud agrees. In A Dictionary of Usage and Style he dismisses the grammatical superiority of persons as “superstition,” a law that “usage has in fact repealed.”

Because persons sounds aloof and clinical, the word still thrives in legal, official, or formal usage. A hotel chain’s website offers “options for three and more persons.” Elevators carry signs saying, “Occupancy by more than eight persons is unlawful.” The Department of Justice has a database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

A more timely debate these days would be people vs. folks. Traditionalists regard folks with suspicion and contempt. Bernstein says, “Folks is a casualism … not suitable for general straightforward writing.” Bremner calls it “deliberately folksy” and “corny in formal speech and writing.” But judging by its growing popularity and acceptance in this informal age, folks will probably be synonymous with people in another ten years.

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Posted on Tuesday, August 12, 2014, at 11:02 am


The Best Thesaurus

Have you ever needed a better word than the only one that comes to mind? Nowadays, the easy solution is to type that word plus “synonym” into your Google search box. Call me old-fashioned, but I turn to a book: the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. Anyone serious about writing needs this book—a quantum leap in thesauruses (thesauri?), and so much more besides.

Every writer but the most gifted needs a resource for synonymous words and phrases, but for years all I ever saw was something called Roget’s Thesaurus. Call me a nitwit, but I just couldn’t figure the damn thing out. Why couldn’t I just look up a word and find a list of synonyms after it?

Then in 1978 came J.I. Rodale’s Synonym Finder. At last, a thesaurus that worked like a dictionary. I still have my copy, and it still comes in handy, but the OAWT is even better. The front cover says, “For the writer in everyone.” An excerpt on the back dismisses utilize as a pretentious way of saying use. Yes! I liked this book before I even opened it.

The OAWT is the Swiss Army knife of wordbooks. Though it’s a straight Rodale-style thesaurus most of the way, there’s a lot more after the last entry (zoom, which can mean both “charge” and “enlarge”). There is a handy 24-page refresher course on the rules of grammar, followed by a spelling guide that includes a substantial list of commonly misspelled words (e.g., inoculate, minuscule, Philippines) and familiar foreign-language terms (roué, serape, Zeitgeist), after which comes a capitalization and punctuation guide. Taken as a whole, these breezy, easy-to-understand sections provide a solid understanding of how our language works.

The most fun comes at the very end: a list of clichés and, better yet, a collection of redundancies. Writers will squirm at the clichés, knowing they’re guilty of having used several of them: acid test, all in all, done deal, duly noted, in the near future, touch base, wreak havoc, and so many, many more. The redundant phrases are startling: many seem fine until you think about them: advance warning, brief moment, climb up, empty space, false pretenses, plan in advance, whether or not, written down.

Here are a few features that I think make OAWT the thesaurus of the 21st century: Unlike Rodale, OAWT uses your word correctly in a sentence or phrase before offering alternatives. If a word has two or more meanings, each gets its own paragraph of synonyms—easy, for instance, has seven paragraphs, from uncomplicated to promiscuous. You’ll find notes on “Easily Confused Words” throughout, like after founder or rack, to alert you about flounder and wrack. “The Right Word” sections deal with fine distinctions, helping writers choose between, say, riddle and conundrum. “Word Banks” are comprehensive lists of everything from amphibians to knitting terms to wine grapes. “Word Notes” and “Usage Notes” explain the finer points and pitfalls of common words and phrases.

Hard-core word nerds will have beefs. I wasn’t thrilled with the hedging on media (it’s plural, OK?). There are opposing points of view on the validity of the disinterested-uninterested dichotomy (to me there’s no question disinterested means “unbiased,” not “apathetic”). On the other hand, I found terrific passages on troublemakers like comprise, data, impact, and like.

Memo to smart alecks: the OAWT indeed does offer synonyms for synonym … and for thesaurus.

Tom Stern

 

Pop Quiz

Can you spot the commonly misspelled words? (gleaned from the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus)
Suggested answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. We will be happy to accomodate all those in attendence.
2. The chauffer flinched when the lightening struck the limouzine.
3. Stealing the promissory note was a heinious act.
4. The mechanic sat in the restaurant feeling susceptible to melancholy.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. We will be happy to accommodate all those in attendance.
2. The chauffeur flinched when the lightning struck the limousine.
3. Stealing the promissory note was a heinous act.
4. All correct.

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Posted on Monday, July 28, 2014, at 1:52 pm


Nothing Is True Forever

Just about every week, GrammarBook.com receives emails like this: “My brilliant ninth-grade English teacher drilled into us that so-and-so, but now you say such-and-such.” The painful truth is that with each new generation the rules change.

If you were in high school in the 1970s, it’s a safe bet that your brilliant English teacher lectured you about the word hopefully. Forty years ago this word polarized America. People loved to say it, and language snobs loved to hate it. The veteran TV journalist Edwin Newman had a sign in his office that said, “Abandon ‘hopefully’ all ye who enter here.”

Nobody claimed that hopefully was invalid—it was the way everyone used it that was unacceptable. The word’s strict meaning is “filled with hope,” as in Hopefully, I knocked on my true love’s door. But few used it that way. It came to mean “it is hoped that,” as in Hopefully, my dream will come true.

The authorities were up in arms for several reasons. For starters, hopefully became a fad word, like today’s awesome or amazing. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing it everywhere. The more people said it, the more grating and vapid it became.

Beyond that, language scholars saw hopefully as a cop-out—no more than a glib way of avoiding “I hope.” It’s intentionally unclear who is hoping in Hopefully, my dream will come true. The word just floats there, unattached. Are you saying the whole universe hopes your dream will come true? Are you really that special?

Those who weren’t there can’t know how passionately the sticklers despised hopefully. “Its detractors were operatic in their vilifications,” says writer Geoff Nunberg. The odd thing was that the same detractors had no objection to other “floating” adverbs, such as thankfully, happily, and frankly.

For decades the venerable Associated Press Stylebook said in its entry on hopefully: “It means in a hopeful manner. Do not use it to mean it is hoped, let us hope or we hope.” So imagine the surprise of many who opened the 2012 edition and found this: “The traditional meaning is in a hopeful manner. Also acceptable is the modern usage: it’s hoped, we hope.”

Now, after all these years, the uproar is a dim memory, and the word is accepted in most quarters (although you will never see a floating hopefully in this space).

So much for that English teacher’s scolding in 1979. To the dismay of traditionalists, a language’s rules are bound to change when enough people refuse to obey them.

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Posted on Monday, July 21, 2014, at 10:25 pm