English "comma rules"

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Woods
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English "comma rules"

Postby Woods » 2020-11-07, 11:38

I don't think I need schooling on how they work, but I was asked the question yesterday and found myself unable to answer. "Just use your feeling" was the best I could come up with. Anybody who feels like having another take?

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Re: English "comma rules"

Postby linguoboy » 2020-11-07, 12:41

Consult a style guide. There isn’t a single standard but rather multiple competing ones.

(“Use your feeling” is terrible advice in these matters. A lot of folks just port over the comma usage rules from their native language and it shows.)
"Richmond is a real scholar; Owen just learns languages because he can't bear not to know what other people are saying."--Margaret Lattimore on her two sons

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Re: English "comma rules"

Postby Woods » 2020-11-11, 7:43

Yeah, I think I actually said something like "don't do it like in your own language but use your feeling" :D

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Re: English "comma rules"

Postby linguoboy » 2020-11-11, 16:37

Woods wrote:Yeah, I think I actually said something like "don't do it like in your own language but use your feeling" :D

That seems even more unhelpful. Where is your "feeling" supposed to come from then?

My first high school English teacher warned us that most comma errors are errors of overuse. So if I had to give one piece of advice, it would be, "If you can't think of a good reason to use a comma, don't." [The first two commas in that sentence are optional; the last one isn't.] A lot of folks seem to be under the misapprehension that commas indicate the places where you would pause while saying the sentence aloud. That's sometimes true, but not consistently enough to be a good rule.
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Re: English "comma rules"

Postby Woods » 2020-11-12, 11:04

linguoboy wrote:A lot of folks seem to be under the misapprehension that commas indicate the places where you would pause while saying the sentence aloud.

Oh, I think I'm there too. I prefer to use commas to make my sentence sound right rather than to follow rules.


Again, English does better than some other languages, which "require" to place commas automatically according to grammar rules. For example, surrounding subordinate clauses:

I think, that you are right. (This would be the "required" usage of commas in Bulgarian, and I think German. But it doesn't make any sense to me.)

Otherwise I would say exactly the same thing about your sentence above (first two commas are optional, the last is not) - so I think my feeling works :D

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Re: English "comma rules"

Postby linguoboy » 2020-11-12, 17:36

Woods wrote:Oh, I think I'm there too. I prefer to use commas to make my sentence sound right rather than to follow rules.

You're still following rules, they're just rules of your own formulation.

Woods wrote:Again, English does better than some other languages, which "require" to place commas automatically according to grammar rules.

This is really an awkward sentence. I tried to correct it and realised that I'd be more comfortable reformulating it entirely, e.g. "which place commas strictly according to grammatical rules". I really don't understand the scare quotes around "require". I guess you mean it's not the languages themselves that require the commas but just certain language authorities? It's confusing in any case.

Woods wrote:For example, surrounding subordinate clauses:

I think, that you are right. (This would be the "required" usage of commas in Bulgarian, and, I think, German. But it doesn't make any sense to me.)

This is the rule in German. It's the number one comma usage error I see from German-speakers in English.
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Re: English "comma rules"

Postby Woods » 2020-11-13, 9:00

linguoboy wrote:
Woods wrote:Oh, I think I'm there too. I prefer to use commas to make my sentence sound right rather than to follow rules.

You're still following rules, they're just rules of your own formulation.

True this.


linguoboy wrote:
Woods wrote:Again, English does better than some other languages, which "require" to place commas automatically according to grammar rules.

This is really an awkward sentence. I tried to correct it and realised that I'd be more comfortable reformulating it entirely, e.g. "which place commas strictly according to grammatical rules".

Oh, thank you for this.

What I meant is that there is the idea of "requirement," at least this is how it feels for those Bulgarians that just think they should place commas according to rules without even thinking what the idea of a comma is in the first place.

Like I've had a fairly literate person with a Master's in languages tell me that this other colleague was illiterate cause he didn't place commas before ,that's etc. And I just told her that she had no clue - being on the brink of telling her that she's the illiterate one (the guy was in my opinion much better at writing than her).


linguoboy wrote:I really don't understand the scare quotes around "require".

I meant to express that there is this idea in some people's heads that things like commas are required, but I wanted to dissociate myself from it, therefore I put the quotes. Maybe it didn't come through?


linguoboy wrote:
Woods wrote:For example, surrounding subordinate clauses:

I think, that you are right. (This would be the "required" usage of commas in Bulgarian, and, I think, German. But it doesn't make any sense to me.)

This is the rule in German. It's the number one comma usage error I see from German-speakers in English.

How do you feel the other way around? Would you hesitate to omit the comma in German if you don't feel like it?

I think languages are generally going in this direction - getting rid of unnecessary commas and using them to help the writer's flow of thought, and meaning come through.

At least I think it is happening with Finnish, but I'm not sure - maybe a Finnish speaker can confirm.

(By the way I put a comma there because I wanted to make sure this is not understood as "the writer's flow of thought and the writer's meaning" but as "the writer's flow of thought and the meaning." I know it looks totally out of place and I probably wouldn't normally use it here but sometimes I do things like that.

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Re: English "comma rules"

Postby linguoboy » 2020-11-13, 17:53

Woods wrote:What I meant is that there is the idea of "requirement," at least this is how it feels for those Bulgarians that just think they should place commas according to rules without even thinking what the idea of a comma is in the first place.

This is why I added "strictly". In this context, it means "with no room for personal choice".

Woods wrote:
linguoboy wrote:I really don't understand the scare quotes around "require".

I meant to express that there is this idea in some people's heads that things like commas are required, but I wanted to dissociate myself from it, therefore I put the quotes.

But they are required according to the punctuation conventions of the standard forms those languages. At least in German, there's no leeway: omitting a comma before a subordinate clause is simply incorrect (and something I almost never see anyone do).

Woods wrote:How do you feel the other way around? Would you hesitate to omit the comma in German if you don't feel like it?

My feelings don't entre into it; when I write German, I follow German usage. Omitting the comma would be like not capitalising nouns. Similarly, although I habitually use a serial comma in English, I never do in languages like German where this is not the usual practice.

Woods wrote:I think languages are generally going in this direction - getting rid of unnecessary commas and using them to help the writer's flow of thought, and meaning come through.

At least I think it is happening with Finnish, but I'm not sure - maybe a Finnish speaker can confirm.

(By the way I put a comma there because I wanted to make sure this is not understood as "the writer's flow of thought and the writer's meaning" but as "the writer's flow of thought and the meaning." I know it looks totally out of place and I probably wouldn't normally use it here but sometimes I do things like that.

A more stylistically felicitous solution would be to reverse the order: "the meaning and the writer's flow of thought". This makes it clear that "writer's" only applies to the second term. Even just "the writer's flow of thought and the meaning" would have been a better solution.
"Richmond is a real scholar; Owen just learns languages because he can't bear not to know what other people are saying."--Margaret Lattimore on her two sons


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