Thursday, February 08, 2007

By Popular Demand

You guys are clearly overestimating the entertainment value of what I have to say about the comma. I am no Lynne Truss – I do my best to make my writing classes interesting, but when I succeed it’s due to pep rather than wit. (My attempts at wit are usually a dismal failure. And yet I keep on making them.)

Take for example the dilemma posed by multiple adjectives. I am drinking a rich, thick, chocolatey milkshake. I am eating a large milk chocolate Toblerone bar. Why are there commas between the adjectives in the first sentence and not the second?

The answer, my friends, has to do with the distinction between coordinate adjectives and cumulative adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are descriptive words we append at will to our nouns, throwing them about willy-nilly, with little regard to the order in which they appear. To be sure, we typically prefer to place the longest adjective last, but if we wished, we could alter the order without disintegrating into nonsense. I am drinking a thick, chocolatey, rich milkshake. Doesn’t have quite the same ring, of course, but it does make sense. I could not, however, say that I am eating a chocolate milk Toblerone large bar. That would be absurd.

Another test is to replace the comma with the word "and". I am drinking a rich and thick and chocolatey milkshake. Sure, why not? I am eating a large and milk and chocolate and Toblerone bar. Sure, and my name is a Borat. (See what I mean about the wit?)

Of course, coordinate and cumulative adjectives can also be mixed. I could eat a huge, expensive milk chocolate Toblerone bar, or I could drink a rich, thick, high-fat McDonald’s chocolate milkshake. The key is to distinguish between adjectives that specify a category and those that merely describe. "Chocolatey" is not really a word, but if it were, it would be a descriptor. "Chocolate," on the other hand, specifies a particular kind or category. Commas are unnecessary before or after category-type adjectives (also known as cumulative adjectives).

A third trick to test for whether an adjective is coordinate or cumulative is to move it to the predicate and precede it with "very". My milk shake is very rich, very thick, and very chocolatey. My bar is very large (okay), very milk, very chocolate, and very Toblerone (not so much). Large is a coordinate adjective, but the others are all cumulative. The "very" part of the trick won’t work for absolute terms (like "unique"), but the switch to the predicate should work in most cases.

The underlying principle here is that one does not place a comma between an adjective and whatever it modifies. We do not say, "Thank you for the nice, present." "Nice" describes "present," so we omit the comma. Same thing goes for adverbs: we do not say, "The bridemaids wore pale, pink dresses" because "pale" modifies "pink" (tells to what degree the dresses were pink). In the case of cumulative adjectives, each adjective modifies all the words that follow: when we order a "tall decaf gingerbread latte," "decaf" modifies "gingerbread latte," and "tall" modifies "decaf gingerbread latte." (I would say that "nonfat" and "decaf" are both coordinate adjectives, though: the "tall" has to go at the beginning, and the "gingerbread" has to go at the end, but "decaf" and "nonfat" could go in either order in the middle.)

It’s hard to say which quality all this information exhibits to a greater degree: dullness or uselessness. Most people will punctuate adjectives correctly by instinct; those who cannot often have great difficulty learning and applying the above rules. The effort of studying these precepts often results in an immediate (and hopefully short-term) deterioration in the quality of one’s writing: there are certain errors that only arise from second-guessing one’s first impulse. Only after my class on "who" vs. "whom," for instance, do I receive essays with sentences like "George W. Bush is the president whom sent the troops into Iraq."

Speaking of who vs. whom, though, I am reminded that there is a whole other set of rules governing adjective clauses and appositive phrases. Somebody stop me, please, before it’s too late.


Six years ago today, I got up to find an all-day sucker waiting for me on the kitchen table, a present from hubby. "Thirty Sucks," it said – and when I saw it I burst into tears. (The fact that hubby himself was twenty-five at the time – a mere infant in arms, as it were – served to add insult to injury.) Today I am at peace with being firmly entrenched in my thirties. When I go to work, people no longer mistake me for a student; I look like a woman rather than a girl, and I no longer feel quite so surprised when strangers take me seriously as a responsible adult. I’m as old now as Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana were when they died, and a year from now I hope to be older still.


Andrea said...

Happy Birthday!

Mimi said...

I love punctuation. Let's run away to Grammar Land en route to Style Heaven, shall we? Sigh ...

You're right that we tend to know these things 'intuitively' or not be able to pick them up reliably at all. I teach grammar. This depresses me.

But would you wade into the swamps of 'that' v. 'which': if you can't keep straight the difference between a restrictive and a non-restrictive clause, this will never make sense ...

I'm just reading _The Meaning of Everything_ and am falling in love with the idea of a descriptive grammar. I loves me my carefully-wrought locutions and deliberate stylistic quirks, but there's something to be said for functional language as well, non? And would this keep people from hating English PhDs and saying stuff at parties like, "You're an English prof? Oooo, I'd better watch what I say."

Sorry. Got kinda carried away ...

Mimi said...

Duh me. Happy Birthday, fellow Aquarian!

NotSoSage said...

I suppose I'm outing myself here, but I loved this AND I'm probably one of those who is most likely to second-guess myself and make errors in my next post.

Have a wonderful, restful, treat-filled 36th birthday!

NotSoSage said...

I note the many references to chocolate. Perhaps I should have added, "chocolatey".

Mouse said...

Happy Birthday!

I liked 30 a lot--I finally didn't feel like a fraud when I called myself an adult. That may also have had something to do with the brand new baby I had at home.

And I loved the comma lesson. I'm the sort of person that often gets asked (by colleagues or by wife), "Does this need a comma?" Drives people nuts when I then answer, "That's an optional comma" and proceed to explain why.

But I would suggest that "nonfat" and "decaf" are not interchangeable in the Starbucks order--not necessarily from a grammatical standpoint, but because they seem to have a set order. Which I get wrong everytime and then must be corrected.

bubandpie said...

Mimi - I will confess that I am not a "that"/"which" stickler: I know the rules, but I break them at will when I think "which" sounds better. I'm thinking maybe my next lesson, erm, post should be on my least favourite grammar rules (the ones I flout with impunity).

Sage - My classes are just the same - I'm always talking about hot dogs and cheesecake and pancakes...when stumped for an example I always turn to food. Funnily enough, I'm in an unusually chocolate-deprived state right now - hardly a truffle in the house! Hopefully hubby has plans to amend that later today. (Hubby? Are you reading this? Remember that cute little chocolate shop down the road from your office?)

bubandpie said...

Mouse - When I order Starbucks, I always get so confused that I usually break both the rules of Starbucks and the rules of grammar. To wit: "I'd like a decaf latte ... gingerbread... tall ... made with 1% but still with whipped." It's an order that makes no sense from a linguistic or nutritional standpoint.

Robbin said...

I KNOW the correct rules. The problem I have is that I get carried away with the moment and simply forget to USE them. I am one of those who corrects a post about twelve times after I have already published it.

Happy Birthday! And if it is any comfort, when you are firmly ensconced in your forties, you will marvel that you don't really feel any different. You will try to pinpoint the time in your life when you actually transitioned into being an "adult", because you sure as heck still don't feel like one.

Sober Briquette said...

Happy Birthday! I do hope it turns chocolatey.

Lisa b said...

I bow down to you the goddess of punctuation. I am quite certain learning these lessons is only going to lead to the deterioration in writing you describe. Apparently I should be careful what I wish for.

Happy Birthday!

metro mama said...

Happy Birthday!

I agree with you, I tend to get in trouble when I think about the rules too much.

I'd love to hear about the rules you flout.

Pieces said...

Happy, happy birthday!

I love punctuation and grammar. Not that I always use them correctly. There is a sort of thrill in knowing that I misused punctuation on my blog post today. I can think of at least three hyphens I left out. But it's my blog and I don't have to go correct them. Really, I don't.

Beck said...

Happy birthday, to you! That, was a very informative post.

nomotherearth said...

I loved this post. I took enriched english in high school and the teacher assumed that we already knew all the rules, so we had no grammar lessons whatsoever. I would have loved a class like this - I'm that much of a nerd. Please do post more, especially about the rules you flout. Oh, and when a dash can be used and when it shouldn't - cause I'm a dashaholic.

Have a fantastic birthday!

something blue said...

I hope your day is wonderful and that the year will be made up of amazing adjectives the whole way through!

bubandpie said...

Beck - You, are so awesome.

Blog Antagonist said...

Oh boy, injudicious use of commas is definitely my Achilles heel. But I tend to use commas as reflective of characteristics of speech, and so, rely a lot on how a sentence feels and sounds. Sometimes during the editing process I do amend a poorly executed sentence, but not always. I can generally recognize errors without being completely convinced that the sentence would in fact be better for the correction of them. My English teacher hated me. :?)

Happy Birthday! I'm a year older than you, and while 30 has been easier than I thought, I'm not necessarily in love with the idea of 40. I've got a couple years yet...I'll come around.

Jaelithe said...

Happy Birthday, and don't stop writing about grammar minutiae! See how many secret lovers of grammar you've already outed?

Denguy said...

Hey, I'm older than you are.

Thanks for the lesson, I can't wait for the next one.

Oh, I almost forgot, happy birthday.

Becky said...

Happy Birthday, B&P!

Thanks for the comma lesson! As a firmly entrenched science major (note the lack of unnecessary commas) I never took any English classes, and yet I am expected to write articles worth of publication. I am fortunate that my father was very dedicated to good grammar and spelling, and so I have decent writing skills, but tips like these are always VERY useful.

And yes, I'm reminded of the fact that I dropped French after grade 10 simply because I despised grammatical nomenclature. (20+ different verb tenses? Are you kidding me!?)

I digress... have a wonderful birthday!

Becky said...

a "y" escaped my comment - I meant "worthy" of publication.

Jenifer G. said...

OK. No mental red pen marking of this comment as I haven't had time to memorize it all yet.

Now I am scared, I am 36 on Sunday, whole lotta bloggy b-days this week. Happy Happy Happy Birthday to you! Hubby will be 41 this year, bless him for always being five years older.

PS Do you get the Happy B-Day & Valentines combined "dinner out"? We gave up on separate occasions years ago. Mind you the gifts (hello chocolate) must always remain separate.

bubandpie said...

Jenifer - Hubby's birthday is two days before our wedding anniversary, so we usually get two dinner-dates in one week at the end of August (both sets of grandparents get a chance to babysit that way). We've stopped bothering with Valentine's Day, though, because of the bother of getting reservations on one of the busiest nights of the year. Since we've already been out for my birthday, it's easy to let it slide. I figure I'm doing well if I get a card.

Christina said...

Happy birthday!

Studying the rules always forces me to overthink my writing and make more errors. But this was an interesting lesson on the formal use of the comma.

Now if people could only learn the their/there/they're difference.

Em said...

Happy birthday! I have 2+ more weeks of being 36.... and then it is one step closer to 40!

MOM-NOS said...

1. What does it say about me that I adore this post?

2. Can I take your class?

3. Can I steal all of these examples for the next writing class I teach if I give you full credit?

4. Catch me in four years, when the happy feelings of legitimate adulthood may have worn thin, and I will provide a (certainly) older, (probably not) wiser shoulder to cry on.

5. Happy, happy birthday!!

PeanutButtersMum said...

Di was only 36 when she died?! Wow!

Despite your lovely lesson on the comma, I must insist on continuing its misuse. ;-)

Thanks for the lesson, all the same!

Like Nomotherearth, I would like a lesson on the dash. Not because I really want to follow the rules, but because it might be interesting to know what the rules are.

Oooooo... That was a dangling participle, no? ;-)

bubandpie said...

Nomo and PBM - That's the great thing about the dash - there are basically no rules governing its use. The only real mistake would be to separate a sentence-interruptor (my term) with one dash and one comma, like so:

My mother - an avid reader, always returns her library books on time.

Aside from that, just go ahead and throw it anywhere you please - no lessons necessary!

bubandpie said...

Mom-NOS - By all means, you can steal anything you like, so long as all your students become regular readers of my blog. Or not. Really, no credit is necessary. As for the birthdays, this is the first one I've felt really good about in approximately twelve years, and I'm sure it will be the last for awhile. Maybe hubby is right and it has to do with the fact that 36 is a square number while 35 is not.

PBM - There certainly was NOT a dangling participle in that comment! (The horror!)

Mad Hatter said...

I'm breaking out in hives about the witty, thick, chocolatey grammar.

Happy 36. 36 is good. I remember it well.

lildb said...

If I were within proper gifting distance for the purpose of the day (within a five-km range, or thereabouts) I would gift you with a very large, very delicious, very chocolatey Toblerone bar for your birthday, but instead I shall have to simply wish you a happy birthday. Or, that is, belatedly.

, , , and .

Ella said...

Happy Birthday!

penelopeto said...

Of course, the correct, and much more commonly used sentence would read:
The bridesmaids wore pale, ugly dresses.

you have no idea how much i loved this post. just for funsies i might email you some of the crap that i have to proofread.

happy birthday, lady.

Karen said...

When I was in 9th grade my English teacher made us learn the comma rules by writing them down from memory. I'm fairly sure that this only served to leave them lingering in the back of brain undermining me as I write. Now I can always wonder to myself, "what was that comma rule?"
I'd much rather have practiced with challenging, funny, interesting sentences about large delicious chocolate milkshakes. (My brain - "What was that comma rule?")
Happy happy to be in your thirties Birthday. It's nice to feel at home in the year, isn't it?

Kelly said...

I find you imminently more readable than Strunk and White.

More grammar, please!

And Feliz Cumpleanos...welcome to the 30s. I've been here for a few years, and really, it's pretty cool. Now if I only could have left this annoying adult acne behind in my 20s.

Kelly said...

Oops, I guess I'm a careless reader.

Happy 36th birthday. I should have know Princess Di and Marilyn Monroe weren't 30 when they died!

Becky said...

Thanks for the grammar lesson... ah, the memories of high school that it brings back. LOL!

I know that I get carried away with my punctuation when I'm typing casually, but I am normally a stickler for it.

The one thing that bugs me most is spelling! I can't stand reading emails and what-not that don't have 2 consecutive words spelled correctly.

Any way, I hope you have a very Happy Birthday! I just turned 34 a few weeks ago and I'm feeling every bit of it! ;o)

OddMix said...

In the words of Sandra Boynton:

Hippo birdie two ewes,
Hippo birdie two ewes,
Hippo birdie deer ewe,
Hippo birdie two ewes!

(picture that)

Rock the Cradle said...

A belated Happy Birthday, B&P

You know, I have never read a more engaging lesson on punctuation. The examples were immediately accessible. Now, of course, I want a giant mocha latte from Peet's.

Please keep it up. I've barely cracked a book on grammar since high school. No doubt it shows.
Bring on the adjective clauses and appositive phrases!

Mayberry said...

Happy birthday!

And could you take on apostrophes (proper use thereof) next?!

bren j. said...

As useful as I found this post (the last time I studied grammar with any degree of seriousness was grade FIVE), I'm once again reminded why I was one of the few in my college circle of friends who DID NOT study to teach English. I can only imagine the grammatical havoc I would've unleashed on unsuspecting foreign populations.
I was also reminded, however, what great respect I have for those same friends.

Happy Birthday!

Next up, the semi-colon??

Jennifer said...

Happy, Birthday!

(Ha, get it? With the comma? Just cracking myself up here...)

julia said...

I love this post. Grammar and punctuation make me giddy with happiness.

Lawyer Mama said...

Ahhhh! Now my head hurts. I think I'll just have to continue placing my commas randomly throughout my posts.

Happy birthday!

theflyingmum said...

I was always told to put a comma where you would naturally pause in speech. But I have also been told I use them too liberally. What can I say, I am a punctuation junkie and I read, with bated breath, what you had to say about "The Big C."
Also, how to use "who" and "whom" never made sense to me until I studied German and learned the dative case:
"Wer hat gesprochen?"
"Mit wem hast du gesprochen?"
"Who spoke?"
"With whom did you speak?"
In this example it's all about the dative preposition, "with."
Do we have dative case in English?

KC said...

I love this post. (I think I'm always saying this whenever I come by). It is utterly delightful.

and happy birthday!