Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rules are rules

Over at Language Log, Professor Geoffrey Pullum gives the lie to the canard that descriptivists think that there are no rules in English, presenting a compact summary of the punctuation of relative clauses:

There are two major ways in which a relative clause may function. One is that a relative clause may be a fully integrated modifier of the noun in a noun phrase, often providing some sort of semantic restriction on the reference of that noun. Thus person can be used to denote the entire class of human beings, while person who has been unsuccessful denotes only the smaller subset of those who have failed at something. The underlined part is what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls an integrated relative clause. They are often called "restrictive" relative clauses, or "defining" relative clauses.
The other major function for relative clauses is to serve as a parenthetical interruption of the main flow of a sentence, contributing supplementary information about someone or something immediately after it is referred to in the main content. Thus You can talk to John if you like just says that if you want you can talk to John, but You can talk to John, who has more experience, if you like adds some supplementary (and definitely secondary) information about John's experience level. This kind of relative clause is the one that CGEL calls a supplementary relative clause.
There are all sorts of differences between the two, but the one that is crucial here is that supplementary relatives must be separated off with commas and integrated ones must not be.

The erroneous use of whom as a subject also comes in for attention.

The comments on the post are well worth your attention, particularly when they veer off into the mistaken belief that “[u]ltimately, all a comma is is a breath or short pause.”

What some people, many of them my students, have difficulty in grasping is that the comma functions in two ways. In some cases, as in the supplementary relative clauses that Professor Pullum describes, or in appositive clusters, the commas are essential. That is a rule. But there are also commas with which writers try to indicate pauses mimicking the rhythms of spoken English. They are discretionary.  

Note to readers: I have usually tried in this blog to indicate an extended quotation by boldfacing the text to distinguish it from my own comments. But some readers have found the boldface type difficult to read, and in this case the original text contains boldface type. So I am experimenting here with putting a block quotation in a different font to set it off. What do you think?


  1. There is actually a block quote tag in HTML. It's simply the word "blockquote" inside the HTML brackets. Then at the end of the quote you have to close the tag with the brackets, backslash and the word "blockquote" again. I don't know how it would work with your blogging software though. (I know when I wrote the tag out in the comment here it wouldn't allow my comment.)

  2. >What do you think?

    Works ok, but can you get it to indent?

  3. Deanna is right. In HTML, the BLOCKQUOTE element can be used to delimit a block of quoted text:

    BLOCKQUOTE – Block Quotation (WDG HTML Help)

    Quotations: The BLOCKQUOTE and Q elements (W3C HTML 4.01 Recommendation)


  4. Re your note: It's all good.
    Re you and Dr. Pullum: Thank God for you both.

    And whenever the restrictive-versus-nonrestrictive issue comes up, I'm reminded of a time many years ago when I was asked to "just proofread" a very messy rough draft (specifically told not to change any words, but just to "clean up the punctuation") so it could be sent to a client. In it there was a single comma where it made no sense unless it was a typo or it was one-half of a set with one missing, and the meaning of the clause was crucial and unclear, and it was a scientific (medical) paper, and the author was away (skiing or something--before the days of cell phones). I can't remember what happened, but I remember a very heated conversation with my boss (who did not know whether the clause was restrictive or not) about letting writers disappear before their work was through edit and how it was really impossible (to my mind) to "just clean up punctuation" as if it were separate from and independent of the words.

  5. John, it works quite well, especially when the quote is embedded in text. You could also do this by creating in your stylesheet a class for such quotes and putting the formatting instructions into the class definition -- if you're that much into html.

    The blockquote tag is best reserved for extended quotations. One of its attributes is "source" (or something like that), which is used to identify the source of the quotation. The intent is that it should not be oneself.

  6. Re: Blockquote

    This may be helpful.

    In my opinion, your implementation of blockquote using a different font serves the purpose technically but not esthetically. My preference is for an indented left margin.

    Re: Commas
    Spoken English uses pauses to improve understanding and most native English speakers use them well. I don't know why written English needs commas for anything besides marking a pause. If the use and location of commas are as complex as indicated by Pullum, who do they benefit other than an editor or English teacher?

  7. Well, I am a kind of English teacher, I suppose, and I don't find anything all that puzzling about Professor Pullum's distinctions. There are conventions in writing, such as using a period to end a sentence, and using commas to set off appositive phrases or some relative clauses doesn't seem all that complicated. It is what people who write for a living are supposed to master, like conventions of capitalization that do not exist in spoken language.

  8. I'm not complaining but I've always been suspect of certain conventions. A period, like many commas, signals a pause. Which makes capitalizing the first letter of a sentence (absent in speech) redundant in print.

    English speakers get along fine without assigning gender to our nouns the way that the French, Germans and Spanish do and I don't feel deprived or misunderstood.

  9. Another vote for indenting extended quotes.

    In spoken English, restrictive and non-restrictive clauses are distinguished by pauses. These pauses are precisely where you would put the commas in written English.

  10. I didn't even notice the change in font; maybe I'm just tired at the end of a long day. I'd prefer nearly any other alternative, I think.

    So we're okay with "discretionary commas," yes?

  11. @typingtalker

    While I'm capable of reading text without capitalization, I read more quickly with redundant signals about some things, like the beginnings and ends of sentences. And I often like being able to read quickly when I'm not reading to edit.

    I don't think gender is relevant to the conventions of punctuation and capitalization. I do think many people have found commas, periods and capital letters useful, so they became more common and eventually were standardized.

    Yes, some things get standardized that don't need to be -- that's where peeves and peevishness get a workout.

    It may be that you read at about the same pace no matter the material. I find my reading speed has many gears, and when I speed up, punctuation and capitalization pave the way to comprehension.

    Barbara Phillips Long

  12. Agree that ending a sentence with a period and beginning a sentence with a capital may be redundant, but they are conventions that we have gotten used to. If I read something, like an e-mail, that does not use capital letters, it slows me down. Text with the capitilization conventions in place is now a deeply seated expectation.