Saturday, May 11, 2024

Of course it was about commas

 When I invited readers earlier today to ask me any question they care to about writing, editing, or English usage, this was the first to arrive: "Commas before 'too,' 'as well,' 'either,' etc. at the ends of sentences: yea or nay, and why?"

Commas often precede "as well" and "either" but may not be necessary. I would need to see a context. Periods, not commas, come at the end of sentences (well, sometimes ellipses). Using a comma before "too" is entirely discretionary; it is not necessary but can be used to place a little additional oomph on the word. 

Some commas are required in formal English. Instances include preceding a coordinating conjunction when two independent clauses are joined, setting off appositives, and separating the items in a series.* Know those places. 

But some commas are discretionary, used like the rests in music to mimic the slight pauses in speech. It is perfectly all right to use them thus, but be wary of going overboard. There is a tendency, much remarked upon, to indulge, knowingly or carelessly, in discretionary commas to an extent that the writer, or more properly the writer's voice, comes to resemble that of, one hesitates to point out, Henry James. 

*Regarding the Oxford comma, the final comma in a series: If you are following a stylebook, use it or not as the stylebook dictates; if you are not following a stylebook, use it or not as your taste dictates; if you are arguing in public over whether or not to use it, you are annoying people with trifles. 

Ask me anything

It’s my own fault. 

When The New York Times called to ask for my views on the sale of The Baltimore Sun to David Smith and Armstrong Williams, I was less than enthusiastic.* When Mr. Williams disparaged the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at public events, I pointed to some deficiencies in his argument

So perhaps I should not have been surprised when, looking for some past post, I clicked on the link to You Don’t Say at, I got “Oops! That page can’t be found.”

Now The Sun owns the blog posts I wrote as an employee and published on its website for more than fifteen years.** And if the management chooses to be petty and vindictive, it can do as it pleases with its property, including deleting it. 

But not all is gone; a search on the website, for example, turned up a handful of posts from 2019, and there may be more. Some posts that were picked up by Google News can still be found on search, but that search is also spotty.

Those posts enabled me to say nearly everything I know about writing and editing, and the tens of thousands of page views they got indicated that some readers found them of value. To my knowledge, two or three people actually subscribed to The Sun to be able to read them. 

So now I make this offer: Bring to me any question you have about writing, editing, or English usage, and if I think I can offer a useful answer, I will give one. Never mind that it may be something that I already wrote about. 

I have never been shy about repeating myself. 

*”I think it will mean disaster.”

**The blog you’re currently reading I created in 2009-2010 when I was laid off and have maintained since.