Friday, October 15, 2004

See How the Comma Bends?

With the hyphen, I'm generally a fan of consistency. Decide on vice-presidential debate or vice presidential debate; don't say you'll use the hyphen only if the story also mentions a presidential debate about vice.

But when it comes to punctuation's other most confusing critter, I like flexibility. Do I use a comma to introduce a quotation? It depends. Do I use a comma after an introductory phrase? It depends -- and not only on the length of that phrase. Observe:

"On issue after issue, they’ve blurred the choice," Keyes said.
Note the comma.

"In the end, I think they’ve sacrificed the moral culture of Republicanism," he said.
Again, comma. But these quotes are actually two sentences from the same quote. Here's the way I sent it through:

"On issue after issue they’ve blurred the choice, and in the end I think they’ve sacrificed the moral culture of Republicanism," Keyes said.
In this context the very same introductory phrases work much better without the commas. The comma that is there is important not just because it is technically appropriate when two complete sentences are fused with and, but also because its presence, in conjunction with the lack of the introductory-phrase commas, emphasizes the relationship between those phrases and the thoughts they introduce.

Similarly, a routine quote-introducing comma . . .
They shouted, "Down with Bush!"
. . . might get in the way once the sentence becomes more complex:
They shouted "Down with Bush!" as they marched toward the auditorium.

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