Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bad Comma

Is the comma in this sentence OK? "One was about a fight between a stepson and his stepfather, and involved throwing hammers and attacks with a chainsaw."


I think it's wrong, but I see this everywhere. Did I miss something?


Short of the dreaded comma splice it's hard to pin the word wrong on anything involving comma placement, but I wouldn't have used that comma.


The writer, or perhaps an editor, saw two instances of and in quick succession and moved to tidy things up. Perhaps the writer or editor confused that sentence with a series -- even those of us who stylistically eschew the serial comma are supposed to use it if an item in the series contains a conjunction (toast, juice, and ham and eggs) -- but two items do not a series make. What's going on in that sentence is a compound predicate, and compound predicates are not supposed to get commas.


As I said in a longer discussion of this topic, a technically incorrect "take a breath" comma is sometimes appropriate, but in this case there are better alternatives. Among them:


  • One was about a fight between a stepson and his stepfather, and it involved throwing hammers and attacks with a chainsaw.


  • One was about a fight between a stepson and his stepfather; it involved throwing hammers and attacks with a chainsaw.


  • One of them, about a fight between a stepson and his stepfather, involved throwing hammers and attacks with a chainsaw.

  • 8 comments:

    Joe said...

    Forgive me for butting in with my complete lack of qualifications, but my impression was that, in addition to the problem you mentioned about splitting the predicate, the real problem with the comma is that it implied that THE ARTICLE involved throwing chainsaws and hammers, instead of the fight. Your last three examples seem to suffer from this same problem. Am I missing something?

    Ellie said...

    I'll digress here, but - as another layperson - the comma's not my biggest problem. What confused me briefly was the phrase "involved throwing hammers and attacks with a chainsaw". I had to read it again to check whether it referred to "throwing-hammers" or someone throwing hammers. I'm not sure how I'd restructure this though - "attacks with chainsaws and hammers" doesn't seem to capture the same detail!

    VanderViking said...

    I'm wondering whether the sentence could stay with the comma by changing it to ". . . and his stepfather, which involved . . .".
    I realize it's a bit of a cheat to get around the "and" problem, but it seems to read well to me.

    J said...

    I can see where the editor saw the "a stepson and his stepfather and involved" and inserted a comma. I think it would have been better without the comma; but, better still, change the second "and" to "that," omit the comma and the sentence becomes immediately clear.
    Ambiguity is the problem.
    There's so much to think about with commas: ambiguity, context, serial or not.
    Recently, I read an article where the editor kept two complex sentences joined by a comma, a comma splice.
    "Some like it hot, some like it cold," is fine, but two complex sentences that can stand alone ...
    I thoroughly enjoyed Bill's Lapsing into a Comma (haven't figured out italics here, yet).
    J

    J said...

    "J" is Jo-Anne, by the way. It's how I sign e-mail, etc., so I decided to make it "J".

    Emily said...

    I'm still having problems with the awkwardness of this sentence. I think it involves non-parallel verb forms. I would rewrite as:

    "One was about a fight between a stepson and his stepfather, and involved throwing hammers and attacking with a chainsaw."

    Emily B. Smith
    Editor

    Bill said...

    And it involved :-).

    Word blaster said...

    the sentence u have pointed out here and the culprit comma - a common error. In fact, I agree with the fact that we can add a comma before that "and" only if the sentence following it is complete