Saturday, March 19, 2005

I Rant, and Rave

Actually, I rant and rave. The headline contains a superfluous comma of the sort that seems to occur especially often in newspaper writing. Technically, a compound predicate does not merit a comma. In real life, the "take a breath" comma, as I call it, is occasionally appropriate when the wording is unwieldy or when a dramatic pause of sorts is desired.

Not to pick on any particular writer or editor, but a story I recently handled contained a wealth of examples.

They are skeptical of the Pentagon's ability to substitute air and naval power, and believe strongly that what the country needs is a bigger Army.

No. "And" doesn't believe; they believe. Because there's a chance that a reader would think the Pentagon is doing the believing, the best option here is to keep the comma and repeat the they:

They are skeptical of the Pentagon's ability to substitute air and naval power, and they believe strongly that what the country needs is a bigger Army.
It's possible that the presence of and twice in in four words tricked the editor into thinking this was an example of the serial-comma exception for newspapers that ordinarily don't use serial commas (toast, juice, milk and Trix, but toast, juice, and ham and eggs).

To be sure, the military has also benefited from two years of war-zone rotations, and from a historical perspective is holding up better than many analysts expected.

No. "From a historical perspective" isn't holding up better than expected; the military is holding up better than expected. As with the first example, the comma is a good idea -- it just needs to be accompanied with a restatement of the subject.

To be sure, the military has also benefited from two years of war-zone rotations, and from a historical perspective it is holding up better than many analysts expected.
And another:

The Army shrank from 40 active-duty and National Guard divisions during the Vietnam War to 28 when the Cold War ended, and has 18 now.

No. "And" doesn't have 18 divisions now; the Army does. Two options here:

The Army shrank from 40 active-duty and National Guard divisions during the Vietnam War to 28 when the Cold War ended, and it has 18 now.

Or:

The Army shrank from 40 active-duty and National Guard divisions during the Vietnam War to 28 when the Cold War ended and has 18 now.


Another one:

The Army met 94 percent of its target for getting first-term soldiers to reenlist, and hit 96 percent among those in mid-career.

No. "And" didn't hit 96 percent; the Army did. Again, two options:

The Army met 94 percent of its target for getting first-term soldiers to reenlist, and it hit 96 percent among those in mid-career.

Or:

The Army met 94 percent of its target for getting first-term soldiers to reenlist and hit 96 percent among those in mid-career.

Finally:
Today, Shelley is on duty in what he calls a "one-man fighting hole" on another battlefield -- a Marine recruiting station in Lexington Park, Md., in St. Mary's County -- with a mission to persuade young men and women to enlist, and probably go to war.

Yes! This is a good example of a pause for effect. The going-to-war part isn't a straightforward part of the persuasion; it's a necessary consequence of the other things he's persuading people to do.

6 comments:

Dr Zen said...

"The Army met 94 percent of its target for getting first-term soldiers to reenlist and hit 96 percent among those in mid-career."

Absolutely not. This says the soldiers hit 96 per cent of something.

Surely the comma that Americans like to use before "and" is purely conventional anyway?

Would you correct the following?

"He said he would call, but didn't."

Bill said...

Yes; no comma needed in "He said he would call but didn't." Repeat the "he" and you need a comma.

aparker54 said...

Strunk & White can be a good intimidator to people who actually worship the book. Not long ago, I almost got a journalism prof to stop marking through the commas before "buts" by showing him this passage:
"When the subject is the same for both clauses and is expressed only once, a comma is useful if the connective word is *but.* When the connective is *and,* the comma should be omitted if the relation between the two statements is close or immediate:
"I have heard arguments, but am still unconvinced.
"He has had several years' experience and is thoroughly competent."
(Strunk & White, fourth edition, p. 5)

But I'm no Strunk fan, so I relented. I did leave the discussion with this remark:

Comma styles differ. I still like best the formulation in Merriam-Webster's Manual for Writers & Editors (1998), pp. 7-8:

"Commas are not normally used to separate the parts of a compound predicate.
"The firefighter tried to enter the burning building but was turned back by thick smoke
"However, they are often used if the predicate is long and complicated, if one part is being stressed, or if the absence of a comma could cause a momentary misreading."

Scribblit said...

"To be sure, the military has also benefited from two years of war-zone rotations, and from a historical perspective it is holding up better than many analysts expected."

For the least possible confusing in the brain of a reader, the old way works. This would be to use a semi-color after rotations and to set the prepositional phrase, "from a historical perspective," with commas. What the hell has happened with the good and correct use of semi-colons?

Bill said...

I'm not sure that would be a correct use of the semicolon.

Leeroy said...

Bill,

Just stumbled across this entry today while searching for clearly-put rules on commas before the conjunction "and" when it doesn't introduce a complete sentence.

In addition to not using a comma to split the two verbs in a compound predicate, surely we should also avoid using a comma to split two subjects in a predicate sharing the one verb.

For example: We wrote that we thought it was just a shot across Google’s bow, and unlikely to force Schmidt to leave Apple’s board.