COMMA FAILURE.

Over at the Log, Geoff Pullum provides an excellent example, from The Economist (April 4, p. 11), of why the “comma-heavy” style (with the “Oxford comma” before and and commas after introductory phrases) is preferable:

Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people’s money, but when they failed the parent company, the client and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.

To me, that unambiguously means that when they failed the parent company (i.e., let it down), the client and the taxpayer had to pay the bill. Unfortunately, that’s not what the author meant to say. When the intended meaning is pointed out, I can force myself to read the sentence that way, but it’s a strain. As Geoff says, the sentence should be rewritten as follows:

Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people’s money, but when they failed, the parent company, the client, and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.

Nobody could possibly misunderstand that.

Comments

  1. jamessal says:

    Yeah, I’ve always liked the Oxford comma. As a commenter at the Log said, I’d also like to see a semi-colon after “but.”

  2. jamessal says:

    Before the “but.”

  3. I’m the last person to be messing with someone’s piggy writing, but I’ve given up extra commas for Lent. Why write it in that form in the first place? Why not:
    Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people’s money; left to pay the bill when they failed were the parent company, the client and ultimately the taxpayer.

  4. Oh, hello.

  5. I don’t see the point of putting an Oxford comma in if the sense isn’t confused without it.

  6. jamessal says:

    I don’t see the point of putting an Oxford comma in if the sense isn’t confused without it.
    I’m just used to them, so I use them generally. A few times, in my stories, I’ve taken them out for a rhythm I’m sure only I could perceive.
    I go case by case with introductory phrases.

  7. For me it’s the comma after “failed” that makes a difference to the meaning. I don’t think the Oxford comma makes a big difference in this Ayn Rand-free context.

  8. Maybe I ought to do it. God, I wish I could master commas. I always put them before ‘but’, but only because I’ve been told to. I’m a kind of prescriptivist’s victim.

  9. No semi-colon. The second clause is a dependent clause.

  10. jamessal says:

    No semi-colon. The second clause is a dependent clause.
    Yes, but it’s dependent on the clause after it, not before, so the semi-colon would be fine.

  11. The trouble is, AJP Porcus, that you’ve been staring at nearly punctuation-free British newspaper prose too much of your life, whereas, Language Hat, and I, are commatose Americans.
    As for Oxford commas we put them in so we never make the mistake of leaving them out rare is the place where omitting the sentence final punctuation and following capital letter really causes ambiguity but we do it all the time anyway just because.

  12. That should have been “A. J. P. Porcus”, of course: l’esprit de l’escalier.

  13. I don’t see why the Oxford comma make any difference. As someone else already noted, it’s the comma after “failed” that removes the ambiguity. The comma after “client” is redundant.

  14. Well, that makes me feel better, John. Now I have an excuse.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    I agree, the one after “failed” should really have been put in, while the Oxford comma after “client” is entirely unnecessary.
    Of course, in German, the one after “failed” would not just be simply obligatory, but the beginning of the dependent clause would already be marked by word order… The Oxford comma is forbidden in German, except maybe to strongly emphasize a difference between the last and the second-to-last item in the list (in which case I use it).

  16. I miss the comma after ‘failed” also, and that’s how my non-pro mind would punctuate it. I wonder though, if the pros would say that a comma after “failed” requires a comma after “but” also.

  17. but it’s dependent on the clause after it, not before
    The order doesn’t matter; the semicolon separates independent clauses.
    If you drink a diet coke after you eat a whole package of chocolate, does it have fewer calories than if you eat the chocolate afterwards? No. The calories from the diet coke cancel out the calories from the chocolate no matter what.

  18. I agree with AJP: the sentence should be rewritten, but here’s a version with somewhat more euphony.
    Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people’s money, but their failure left the parent company, the client, and ultimately the taxpayer to pay the bill.

  19. On commas, I think that people should use the full range of possibilities according to need. I even use the forbidden comma which separated long, complicated subject phrases from long, complicated predicate phrases. (Though when I do I feel guilty and fearul, of course). But other times I strip out as many commas as I can for a different effect.

  20. On commas, I think that people should use the full range of possibilities according to need. I even use the forbidden comma which separated long, complicated subject phrases from long, complicated predicate phrases. (Though when I do I feel guilty and fearul, of course). But other times I strip out as many commas as I can for a different effect.

  21. rootlesscosmo says:

    @John Cowan:
    l’esprit de l’escalier.
    The novelist Peter deVries once suggested this should be called “departee.” He also coined “prepartee” for the brilliant witticism that you think up and then wait for a chance to deliver.

  22. You make my day, rootlesscosmo! I have added both inventions to my flash evening wordrobe. Can’t wait to show off, for the first time, “he is only good at departee, so I wouldn’t place him next to Vidal at table”.
    As a youf, I read one or two novels by deVries, and thought they were wonderful. What I remember is a disturbing mixture of humor and tragedy. Maybe these were deployed separately in the different books.

  23. I am not a fan of the Oxford comma, as there are (usually) ways of rewording the sentence. In this case, if you insist on over-commaing: “… and, ultimately, the taxpayer.”

  24. Is the only point of commas to make the meaning clear?

  25. jamessal says:

    The order doesn’t matter; the semicolon separates independent clauses.
    Nijma, in my proposed rewrite — “Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people’s money; but when they failed, the parent company, the client, and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill” — the semi-colon does separate independent clauses; it just happens that the second of them starts with a subordinate clause.
    Is the only point of commas to make the meaning clear?
    Mostly, like all punctuation. But they also affect rhythm.

  26. dearieme says:

    I overcomma my first drafts, overremove commas in the second, and get it about right, to my taste, in the third. By the fourteenth I am worrying about other things.

  27. Luckily, we do not abuse the comma. I thought commas were created so we did not need to explain things.
    Cleaning up our writing is what we need to do.

  28. There’s a solution to all this, proposed 4 years ago in the pages of SpecGram—the OdCom:
    http://specgram.com/CL.2/03.doolittle.odcom.html
    The gist: put the OdCom a bit below the line, so those who like the Oxford Comma will see it there, and those who don’t will see it as a smudge. I’d give an example, but the comments here filter out the necessary HTML. Search the page for “adaptable” to see one in action.
    While we’re fixing punctuation woes, the Quotta and the Quottiod came out the next year, solving the “xxx,” vs “xxx”, problem just as neatly!
    http://specgram.com/CLI.4/04.celen.quotta.html

  29. Is the only point of commas to make the meaning clear?
    Only point? Seems pretty important to me.
    But yes; almost always punctuation is a cohesive device, meant to explicitly guide the reader to a meaning which (often) the speaker’s intonation and rhythm would have provided.

  30. A comma after “failed” is necessary and sufficient. A comma after “client” will flag the error if the comma after “failed” is missing. While this will forestall a misreading, it will force the reader to back up and reprocess.
    Does SpecGram do requests? For maximum punctuation, I would like some kind of semi-comma to put after “taxpayer”:

    Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people’s money; but, when they failed, the parent company, the client, and, ultimately, the taxpayer had to pay the bill.

  31. Almost always punctuation is a cohesive device, meant to explicitly guide the reader to a meaning which (often) the speaker’s intonation and rhythm would have provided.

    The question is whether punctuation should (a) represent intonation or (b) substitute for it. Historically it was (a), but it’s moving more to (b). I’ve said before I think US English has progressed further than UK English in this direction.

  32. I actually clicked on “Paul”‘s home page to see if he can pass a Turing test. He can’t.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    It appears that there are two Pauls.

  34. Jamessal:the semi-colon does separate independent clauses
    Look at the two clauses again. The first one is an independent clause, but the second one cannot stand on its own and is a dependent clause:

    but when they failed, the parent company, the client, and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill

    While you might begin a sentence with the conjunction “but” in informal speech, doing the same thing in a formal sentence makes it a sentence fragment.
    Is the only point of commas to make the meaning clear?
    Mostly, like all punctuation. But they also affect rhythm.
    I hope no one thinks commas are just sprinkled in randomly to reflect where a speaker might pause if the sentence was spoken. If people started doing that all meaning would be lost entirely. The commas and semicolons indicate sentence structure.

  35. Look at the two clauses again. The first one is an independent clause…While you might begin a sentence with the conjunction “but” in informal speech, doing the same thing in a formal sentence makes it a sentence fragment.
    I’m sorry, but you really don’t know what you’re talking about. All I can do is advise you to check a grammar, because I know you’re not going listen to me.

  36. It appears that there are two Pauls.
    The first Paul is a machine that generates comment spam based on words or maybe even content of a post with some human intervention…and the second “Paul” is really Mike who sells windows. Neither Paul is here because they want to be here; they are here to divert traffic or maybe for their own SEO purposes. They are not interested in language, and they don’t return to follow the thread comments once their spam has been posted. They probably don’t click on Hat’s sponsors either, if he is worried about that. They are the commercial between the programs. If there is still any program left after that last onslaught.
    I think it’s like the arms race. Every time a new weapon is invented, it takes time to invent the counterweapon. Eventually the spam filter software will be updated to get them, but for the moment they have a new way to elude it. The pattern of this one is pretty clear: one sentence related to post content, one or two links to the product website, and a link to the same or a different product in the signature.
    BTW, isn’t it the “Harvard comma”? I saw that in a thread somewhere just this week.

  37. Look at the two clauses again.

    When I do, I find two (2) clauses, in fact two sentences, conjoined by “but”. I am, I think uncontroversially, taking clause to mean “a group of words that consists of a subject and a predicate”.
    The “but” in that compound sentence isn’t functioning in any fancy way, in contrast to “there but for the grace of God go I”. The meaning of the entire sentence is essentially unchanged when you replace “but” by “and”, or even leave out the conjunction altogether.

  38. A grammar. A little different explanation from the collection of grammars and programmed learning guides that were used to torture us in high school–and I did pay attention (there’s nothing else to do in Wobegon)–but the examples are the same.
    The simplified sentence with comma:
    Traders got rewards for speculating, but the taxpayer had to pay the bill.
    …and with semicolon:
    Traders got rewards for speculating; the taxpayer had to pay the bill.

  39. I omitted my summing-up: The two clauses are independent, and Jim is down-home right.
    I think Nijma is begging the question when she writes While you might begin a sentence with the conjunction “but”. Like Jim, I see the second clause or sentence as beginning with “when”.
    And you can’t “start a sentence” with a conjunction, because there’s nothing on the left side to conjoin. It would be less contentious to call in ellipsis as an explanation.

  40. The commas and semicolons indicate sentence structure.
    Should I care about sentence structure as a non-linguist? I mean it’s not like the structure of my house: sentence collapse isn’t life threatening and maybe once in a while it’s good. Removing structure reflects how we talk. Or not?

  41. I find two (2) clauses
    Actually there are three:
    1) “Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people’s money”‘
    2) “but when they failed”
    3) “the parent company, the client and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.”
    The second is subordinate to the third, of course.
    Nijma: to think that there is anything wrong with writing, “Traders got rewards for speculating; but the taxpayer had to pay the bill,” is to have a fundamental misunderstanding of punctuation and syntax.

  42. Should I care about sentence structure as a non-linguist?
    No, you don’t need to know any of that stuff to write well. Everything Nijma said about punctuation and meaning was nonsense.

  43. I’m going out for lunch — anybody want anything? (That includes you, Nijma; just because I think you’re talking out of your ass doesn’t mean I won’t buy you a sandwich. I think we’re going to do soft shell crabs for Easter.)

  44. This “structure” business in linguistics is merely a trade metaphor, to my mind. It appears that a lot of people take it too seriously. All they’re bickering about here is the decor.
    “Removing structure reflects how we talk” is a brilliant opening idea. Do elaborate! Is there a disciple job opening chez JJ?

  45. JJ, only the “disciple job” sentence is facetious. I find your idea extremely interesting, because it immediately makes sense to me, although it seems to fly in the face of all kinds of adjurations to “think before you speak”, “structure your thoughts”, “think so as to reflect reality”.
    When I read “removing structure”, I thought of “relaxing”, as with relaxation methods in mathematics. Isn’t there an architectural analogue, in the area of Baustatik (don’t know the English)?

  46. Should I care about sentence structure as a non-linguist?
    Goats will not be safe with this man.

  47. Should I care about sentence structure as a non-linguist?
    Goats will not be safe with this man.

  48. Stu: This “structure” business in linguistics is merely a trade metaphor, to my mind. It appears that a lot of people take it too seriously. All they’re bickering about here is the decor.

    Exactly the opposite. I read for meaning; the meaning gives me the pleasure. Punctuation is not just something to sprinkle over words to give it some decoration. Without the punctuation in the conventional places, the meaning will not be transmitted.
    There are a good number of people here who read out loud or read because they enjoy the way the words sound. I don’t get that at all. It seems so subjective. How can a word sound good? But nonetheless, there seem to be quite a few people here like that who seem to agree on what sounds good–Ezra Pound comes to mind as an example of something they all like. Oh, and Conrad. I just don’t get Conrad. Where is the chase scene? Where is the underlying sociological principle? Some day I hope it all becomes clear to me, and I can amble on their country roads without getting bored, but as for me I will take the eight lane cluster-combolulated highway type of reading that needs all the traffic signals timed and all the exit ramps marked in order for me to negotiate it quickly and get my thrills.
    Thanks for the sandwich Jamessal. (It will be interesting to see if he finds a grammar after lunch. That semicolon he typed was like fingernails on a blackboard.)

  49. jamessal says:

    Without the punctuation in the conventional places, the meaning will not be transmitted.
    Latin texts don’t have any punctuation yet the meaning comes across just fine David Crystal made a point of writing a long unpunctuated paragraph like this one in his book The Fight for English to make exactly this point the paragraph may not be pretty but the meaning is all there
    It will be interesting to see if he finds a grammar after lunch.
    I’m not going to. I’m just going to assure you that if you spent five minutes in the back of a grammar — not what you linked to earlier, which was an online writing lab, but a real grammar, like Cambridge or Oxford (the one I use) — you would see that you’re entirely unfamiliar with the terminology: you don’t know what parts of sentences are even called anymore, let alone how they interact — so for you to go about telling people how to punctuate their sentences based on your understanding of clauses couldn’t be sillier. The study of syntax is, believe it or not, a little complicated.

  50. Nijma: to think that there is anything wrong with writing, “Traders got rewards for speculating; but the taxpayer had to pay the bill,” is to have a fundamental misunderstanding of punctuation and syntax.
    That semicolon makes my teeth hurt.

  51. How can a word sound good? … Where is the chase scene? Where is the underlying sociological principle?

    In your very next sentence, that’s where:

    I will take the eight lane cluster-combolulated highway type of reading that needs all the traffic signals timed and all the exit ramps marked in order for me to negotiate it quickly and get my thrills.

    The chase and the principles are what you yourself bring to those little black marks on pressed cellulose. Since you already wrote “that semicolon he typed was like fingernails on a blackboard”, I don’t need to pose the counter-question of how a punctuation mark can sound bad. The obtuseness you are displaying here is very implausible.

  52. So; I guess, anyone, who doesn’t, swoon, over Ezra Pound; is just, a cretin.

  53. It’s fun to watch peoples’ “comma mistakes” :).
    And people’s apostrophe mistakes. :)

  54. Crumbly: a Baustatikker is a structural engineer. The mathematical equations (or drawing of vector diagrams, that’s how the old German Statikers used to do it: with a sharpened pencil, a triangle and a drawing board) of the physics involved is called Statics in English too. It’s called Statics because you don’t want any part of the structure you’re designing to be moving by the time you reach the end of the equation.
    I’m glad you liked my comment. I don’t know anything about relaxation in math. The structural analogy would be earthquake design, where you can either design a structure to be as stiff as possible to counter the sideways shaking by the quake or you can do the opposite and make it like a thin reed that blows in the wind and then springs right back. Both methods work but they are almost opposites, so you just have to remember at all times which one you’re using. A sentence structure that sways in the wind … I just don’t know about that one. My best sentences always come when I don’t have time to think and I write very fast. That doesn’t mean that every sentence I write that way is good, though, unfortunately.
    Any disciple job opening, chez moi, will be filled by moi. The goats have no feelings either way about sentence structure, except maybe Vesle (she’d be against it).
    Mr James Sal, it’s interesting that the Romans didn’t use punctuation (it’s a Latin-based word, though, isn’t it?), I hadn’t thought of that. The meaning is transmitted without it. The punctuation makes the meaning clearer, though, doesn’t it? And prettier? What I’m getting from this thread is that I ought to cut all the commas that aren’t helping to make my meaning clear. I don’t think I can do rhythm yet.

  55. That semicolon makes my teeth hurt.
    Nijma, I’m with you. Everything I was taught would say semicolons and buts don’t go together. If you keep in the word “but”, then the proper punctuation is a comma.
    Of course, everything I was taught goes back 3 and 4 decades. Perhaps they decided in the interim that commas and semi-colons are equivalent and I never heard.
    More important to the structure–without the “but” you have a classic parallel structure. Including the “but” ruins that.

  56. So far the only argument the semicolon contingent has come up with is “you don’t know what you’re talking about, go find a grammar” and “you’re obtuse”, neither of which I find very convincing. If they were so convinced themselves would they find it necessary to be so condescending/rude? And I haven’t exactly seen any citations from them. Okay, fine. If Purdue University doesn’t know grammar from a hole in the ground, here is Oxford.

    (4) Semicolon – to use semicolons safely you need to satisfy two criteria:

    • The statements separated by the semicolons could stand alone as separate sentences.
    • The topics mentioned in the two statements are closely related. For example: The large oak frame houses the striking train of gears; these parts have been painted black and are the early parts of the clock.

    Semicolons can often seem less curt than a full stop and can also be used to separate the items in a list.

    I’m beginning to think this semicolon thing was a joke.

  57. jamessal says:

    And I haven’t exactly seen any citations from them. Okay, fine. If Purdue University doesn’t know grammar from a hole in the ground, here is Oxford.
    (4) Semicolon – to use semicolons safely you need to satisfy two criteria:
    * The statements separated by the semicolons could stand alone as separate sentences.
    * The topics mentioned in the two statements are closely related. For example: The large oak frame houses the striking train of gears; these parts have been painted black and are the early parts of the clock.
    Semicolons can often seem less curt than a full stop and can also be used to separate the items in a list.
    First, my semi-colon isn’t at odds with any of that. Second, I advised you to find a grammar (which you still haven’t done) not because I wanted you to look up tips about semi-colon use, but because after such statements as “While you might begin a sentence with the conjunction ‘but’ in informal speech, doing the same thing in a formal sentence makes it a sentence fragment” it was clear that you didn’t know the first thing about syntax and I figured an introductory chapter on clauses and whatnot might help.
    Third, here are ten citations culled within ten minutes from the current issues of two of the best written English language magazines in print (one British, one American):
    “His casual flouting of the integrity of someone else’s work seems startling now; but it can also be looked at in a way that helps us see what was going on between FitzGerald and an 11th-century Persian poet that made it possible for a Victorian classic to take shape.”
    – Marina Warner, LRB
    “The Senguptas didn’t know; but they stopped coming.”
    – Glen Maxwell, quoting The Immortals, LRB
    “Yes, yes, he means Christ’s love for us, and the giving of his life for our sins; but a terrorist could be forgiven for misunderstanding the proposition.”
    “This doctrine may seem as perverse as it is familiar, and Proust and Freud would surely see it as a means of securing ourselves against happiness rather than arriving at it; but its power and pedigree are obvious.”
    – Michael Wood, LRB
    “In the resolution of her plots, Vargas, as Borges said of Chesterton, ‘performs a tour de force by proposing a supernatural explanation and then replacing it, losing nothing, with one from this world’; but it’s not quite the world as we know it.”
    – Lorna Scott Fox, LRB
    “Here’s some childish twaddle, do what you want with it; but assuming you print, you’d better pay me well if you want to see any more.”
    – Tim Parks, quoting Carlo Collodi, NYRB
    “‘We do not know the facts of behavior,’ she admits; but the admission doesn’t move her to scrutinize her own examples more skeptically.”
    – Hilary Mantel, NYRB
    “Most SS men were Nazis by conviction and party membership; but the German policemen and soldiers who killed Jews were not necessarily members of the National Socialist Party.”
    “He confronts anti-Semitism in the ranks of the Soviet partisans; but Jews who lacked his physical prowess faced still greater problems.”
    “In reality, he robbed and killed far more than he does in the movie; but it would be hard to argue that he did so selfishly, or in the service of the ideas of someone else.”
    – Timothy Snyder, NYRB
    Funny thing is, I can’t imagine anything more definitive, yet I don’t fool myself into thinking that any of this will make a difference; somehow, you’ll go on thinking that all these writers and their editors know less than you, who can’t identify a grammar.

  58. jamessal says:

    Mr James Sal, it’s interesting that the Romans didn’t use punctuation (it’s a Latin-based word, though, isn’t it?)
    That doesn’t mean anything, of course. Neither the Greeks nor Romans had televisions either.
    The punctuation makes the meaning clearer, though, doesn’t it? And prettier?
    Of course. That’s why we use it. Some people just tend to overvalue its semantic importance. Context is far, far more important.
    What I’m getting from this thread is that I ought to cut all the commas that aren’t helping to make my meaning clear. I don’t think I can do rhythm yet.
    What you should be getting out of this thread, in my opinion, is stop worrying about your fucking commas; considering your mind-boggling prolificity, you write like a dream — and have a good sense of rhythm to boot. Joan Didion, for one, doesn’t know a thing about grammar.

  59. Thanks, that’s going on the wall of my blog.

  60. jamessal says:

    The context of Tim Park’s quote is pretty interesting:
    “The success of his children’s books was welcome but Collodi’s ambition had been to write adult literature. Here, however, his work was criticized for failing to deliver realistic character and incident, and for its underlying pessimism about both the new Italy and human nature in general. Following Zola’s lead in France, the fashion of the day was verismo, a dour realism justified by its commitment to social progress. Out of step with the times, Collodi had a flair for the surreal and absurd that looked back to Sterne and forward to Pirandello; in the 1880s such an approach was considered appropriate only in children’s literature. Thus Collodi frequently found himself invited to work in a genre he sometimes felt was below him. When his publisher insisted he contribute to a new children’s weekly, Giornale per i bambini, he reluctantly delivered the first installment of “The Story of a Puppet,” with a letter remarking: “Here’s some childish twaddle, do what you want with it; but assuming you print, you’d better pay me well if you want to see any more.
    “The story would later be retitled The Adventures of Pinocchio. Collodi did not grow more fond of it. A third of the way into the book we now have, he left Pinocchio hanging by the neck from a tree, having apparently put a gruesome end to both the puppet and his tale. It took the magazine four months to convince him to press on. Later, he was so weary with the project that he took another six-month break. Very likely it was this irritation at writing in a genre he thought secondary that accounts for the story’s extraordinary mood swings and unusually cavalier approach to such matters as narrative consistency. Ironically, these are the very qualities that give Pinocchio its extraordinary vitality, qualities that come across in the new translation by Geoffrey Brock. Like Geppetto, Collodi had casually started something that took on a life of its own.”

  61. That’s pretty interesting. Just because Pinocchio was successful, I guess there was nothing to stop him pressing on with his adult writing if he thought it was more important. Whiner.

  62. Bill Walderman says:

    “it’s interesting that the Romans didn’t use punctuation”
    Not only did they (and the ancient Greeks, too) not use punctuation (comma or semi-colon?) they didn’t even divide the words, so that a Latin or Greek text in an ancient document would consist of an unbroken string of letters.

  63. (comma or semi-colon?)
    Most style guides will say semicolon (because it’s to connect two independent clauses), but in practice both are common. (I don’t know why I was hyphenating “semicolon” before.)
    they didn’t even divide the words
    I didn’t know that — thanks!

  64. You might want to check out this ancient LH post on both, er, points.

  65. That was disgusting, jamessal. I have never seen anything like that before.
    I am not in the habit of reading book review magazines, but one thing I noticed is that most of the sentences you cited were quite complex and had more than one comma. In some of the examples the semicolon helped sort the parts of the sentences out so it could be determined which part of the sentence belonged with which other part. Could it be that in the book review genre they like to use technically complex sentences and have adopted an in-house guide about it? If their sister publication across the water also did it, they might feel greater justification. Such in-house guides do exist; I have read one. Lots of stuff about the proper titles for royalty and so forth, but I don’t remember now if they said anything about the Harvard comma.
    Hmm, here is something that seems to pertain:

    Between items in a series or listing containing internal punctuation, especially parenthetic commas, where the semicolons function as serial commas:

    * “Donald, who works in New Zealand; Jon, the son of the milkman; and George, a gaunt kind of man.”

    * “There are several fast food restaurants in Bristol, Somerset; Birmingham, West Midlands; Plymouth, Devon; and Telford, Shropshire.”

    * “The first three numbers are one, two, and three; the first three letters are a, b, and c.”

    source: http://www.answers.com/semicolon?ff=1
    I hope you’re not suggesting I order a fifty-dollar book just for the curiosity of one thread. I can’t seem to find it online–perhaps someone who has access to the book will post any salient bits.

  66. Oh, drat, not the blockquote thing again. Here is the whole thing posted over. It’s the one with the last asterisk bullet, the little circle bullets are examples:
    English usage
    Semicolons are followed by a lower case letter, unless that letter begins a proper noun. They have no spaces before them, but one or two spaces after. The various implementations of the semicolon in English include:
    * Between closely related independent clauses not conjoined with a co-ordinating conjunction: “I went to the swimming pool; I was told it was closed for routine maintenance.”
    * Between independent clauses linked with a transitional phrase or a conjunctive adverb: “I like to eat cows; however, they don’t like to be eaten by me.”
    * Between items in a series or listing containing internal punctuation, especially parenthetic commas, where the semicolons function as serial commas:
    o “Donald, who works in New Zealand; Jon, the son of the milkman; and George, a gaunt kind of man.”
    o “There are several fast food restaurants in Bristol, Somerset; Birmingham, West Midlands; Plymouth, Devon; and Telford, Shropshire.”
    o “The first three numbers are one, two, and three; the first three letters are a, b, and c.”

  67. you’re talking out of your ass
    The obtuseness you are displaying here is very implausible.
    It is perhaps only slightly off topic to mention I am currently reading a book by Lynne Truss, the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It’s called Talk to the Hand: The utter bloody rudeness of the world today, and six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door.

  68. Funny, I never thought of Bristol as being in Somerset. Sort of like Bath; you’d never think Bath was in Somerset either. I personally think Bath ought to be in Wiltshire.

  69. jamessal says:

    Could it be that in the book review genre they like to use technically complex sentences and have adopted an in-house guide about it? If their sister publication across the water also did it, they might feel greater justification.
    Yes! Either this twaddle is true or, heaven forefend, you’re wrong! Here, why don’t we check?
    “We do not pretend to have given any sufficient account of Coleridge; but we hope we may have proved to some, not previously aware of it, that there is something both in him, and in the school to which he belongs, not unworthy of their better knowledge.”
    – Scott Horton, Harpers
    “Even more significant, in Healy’s view, was the advent of new imaging technologies from the late 80s onwards (CT scans, MRIs and PET scans), which produced the first images of the brain, first in black and white, and then in “living” (or rather simulated) colour – not, he hastens to add, because these images uncovered the roots of madness, as claims to link dopamine deficiency and schizophrenia, or serotonin and depression, have been thoroughly discredited; but because they were so useful as marketing copy, for selling the public on the notion that mental illness was the product of faulty brain biochemistry.”
    – Andrew Scull, TLS
    “It shows that breast-feeding is probably, maybe, a little better; but it is far from the stampede of evidence that Sears describes.”
    – Hanna Rosin, The Atlantic
    “Such can be the privilege of a poet and prose writer, especially one with ambitions as fearsome and uningratiating as Beckett’s; but it is small comfort to anyone in the theatre business, and Schneider was determined that the first-night fiasco of “Godot” was not to be repeated.”
    – Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
    “Akerlof and Shiller believe that if people were rational, there would be no depressions; but there are depressions, and so the rational model must be inadequate.”
    – Richard Posner, The New Republic
    Five different publications. Should I break out the Google Book Search too, or would that just be disgusting???????
    (Also: although the LRB was founded by the owners of the NYRB, they’re totally separate now.)

  70. jamessal says:

    I hope you’re not suggesting I order a fifty-dollar book just for the curiosity of one thread.
    I’m suggesting you learn something about syntax before you tell people how to punctuate their sentences based on your understanding of it. Those grammars I linked to would help; so would any introductory linguistics text book.

  71. jamessal says:

    You might want to check out this ancient LH post on both, er, points.
    Thanks, Hat! That’s a great old post.

  72. jamessal says:

    I am currently reading a book by Lynne Truss
    That actually explains a lot.

  73. jamessal says:

    The Andrew Scull quote actually doesn’t fit, I now realize — but whatever, the point’s still clear.

  74. jamessal says:

    Now that I’ve had a workout — fresh air, clear head — I regret the nasty tone. I apologize, Nijma. I still think you’re utterly wrong; but I apologize.

  75. jamessal, I have checked every grammar book I’ve got in the place–Regents English Workbook (Prentice Hall), Murphy silver (canonical in Europe and the Middle East), McGraw Hill Step by Step Grammar 3, and Azar, the Goddess Of ESL Grammar. They all, all, all, say comma before “but”. Not one of them even MENTIONS the usage you refer to.
    Azar says it, I believe it, and that settles it.
    The Truss isn’t about grammar–it’s about rudeness. I recommend it.

  76. jamessal says:

    I repeat: “I advised you to find a grammar (which you still haven’t done**) not because I wanted you to look up tips about semi-colon use, but because after such statements as “While you might begin a sentence with the conjunction ‘but’ in informal speech, doing the same thing in a formal sentence makes it a sentence fragment” it was clear that you didn’t know the first thing about syntax and I figured an introductory chapter on clauses and whatnot might help.”
    **There’s a difference between a grammar and a “grammar book.” What you’ve listed there, it seems, are books designed for ESL students. To ignore the real world usage of respected writers in favor ESL books is truly bizarre.

  77. Actually jamessal, I have just returned from the library, even though I am frantically trying to get ready to travel, was able to locate a version of the Oxford grammar you so highly recommend because you were so insistent. The material you are claiming was not there. Not in two other grammars either. If the usage you are claiming to be so common is not even available on the internt to be linked to, i would question whether it might be actually a very esoteric usage. while the apology is appreciated, the whol name-calling/you are wrong thing sets a tone that makes factual inquiry difficult. you can see what a thread killer it has been. People should not believe a usage is common because someone they don’t know says “trust me” or “if you don’t I will call you vile names.”
    And why on earth would we teach English that was not in common usage to non-native speakers. The definition of a good ESL program includes English that is in common usage. ESL instructors would never accept text that did not present English in common use.

  78. jamessal says:

    The material you are claiming was not there.
    I’m sorry, what material was that? The introductions to Chomsky and generative grammar and the study of syntax which, if you absorbed them, would show you just how wrong you were to write the comment that started this whole mess in the first place: “No semi-colon. The second clause is a dependent clause.” — is that what wasn’t there? Because I assure you it is.
    I’m sorry that you wasted a trip to the library, but maybe next time you’ll read my comments first so you’ll know what to look up — at least the ones I post *twice*: “I advised you to find a grammar…not because I wanted you to look up tips about semi-colon use…”
    the whol name-calling
    I did not call you any names.
    it might be actually a very esoteric usage.
    It’s neither as common as using a comma before a conjunction nor so esoteric that examples can’t easily be found in the current issues of leading literary publications, but that’s beside the point; the point is that everything you said about syntax was wrong and that the construction you were so quick to object to is in fact used by countless excellent writers.
    People should not believe a usage is common because someone they don’t know says “trust me” or “if you don’t I will call you vile names.”
    Yeah, “trust me” and fifteen examples — that’s about the same thing. And now it’s VILE names?
    you can see what a thread killer it has been
    I know, I know — and I regret it. I hate this compulsive bickering, and always promise myself never again (I had a good run going actually); but now that we’re this far in, it’ll take nothing less than a good night’s sleep to get me to give up the bone first.
    Now I’m going out to dinner. Decent sushi place in town. I’ll buy you a roll.

  79. That actually explains a lot.
    Ah, the damage Truss has done. The success of her punctuation book foreshadows a dire future for humankind. I have done extended tours of duty at a couple of Wikipedia’s punctuation articles (notably Apostrophe). Do you think I could expunge Truss’s pernicious influence? Does the expression “snowflake in hell” mean anything to you?
    Pick up a small seafood bento for me, will you James?

  80. How the devil did you turn up all those examples?

  81. How the devil did you turn up all those examples?

    Yes, I also want to know, but was hesitant to ask. Hatters rush in where hares fear to tread. I thought it must be some kind of patented heimlich internet maneuver to dislodge text.

  82. jamessal says:

    Do you think I could expunge Truss’s pernicious influence?
    Go Snowflake! Go! We’re all rooting for you, and you deserve at least a bento for the Wiki work.
    How the devil did you turn up all those examples?
    It was actually really easy; I just opened some articles and used the Firefox search function: “; but”.

  83. jamessal says:

    I was determined to site you, Hat, but do you know you haven’t used that construction since at least 2004 (as far back as I was willing to search)? It was surprisingly frequent in your quotes, but you really never use it.

  84. jamessal says:

    Hatters rush in where hares fear to tread. I thought it must be some kind of patented heimlich internet maneuver to dislodge text.
    I quite like both of those sentences.

  85. Err…”cite you, Hat”…

  86. You can site me quite easily, since I never leave North Hadley.
    used the Firefox search function: “; but”.
    Good lord, now that I think about it I realize that Firefox does search on punctuation, but I generally encounter that as an irritant when I’m trying to search on a phrase (“dammit, just ignore the comma, wouldja?”), so it wouldn’t have occurred to me that you could do this. Now I am enlightened!

  87. You can also, as James hints, simply search on “but” in Googlebooks, using the advanced search options to narrow by period or whatever and to specify the maximum 100 hits. THEN use your browser to find “; but” in the results. Actually, the initial search might be better restricted to “but if”, “but we”, or similar forms that we may judge more likely to have a semicolon before them.

  88. North Hadley: The linguists check in, but they don’t check out.

  89. I think there’s little point to putting an Oxford comma in if the sentence isn’t confusing without it. Then again I suppose it’s a case by case with introductory phrases.

  90. The linguists check in, but they don’t check out.
    You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
    …or is it…
    You can check out any time you like; but you can never leave.

  91. there’s little point to putting an Oxford comma in if the sentence isn’t confusing without it.
    A point made on the LL thread is that if a publication has a convention of using the Oxford comma, when you come across a sentence with no comma you will not have to guess at the meaning.

  92. David Marjanović says:

    Thanks for the sandwich Jamessal.

    So there’s a sandwich called Jamessal?
    (Sorry, couldn’t resist while we’re talking about punctuation.)

    Nijma, I’m with you. Everything I was taught would say semicolons and buts don’t go together. If you keep in the word “but”, then the proper punctuation is a comma.

    What utter nonsense! The semicolon is there to indicate that the voice goes down (rather than up) and a pause follows! It’s a stronger separation than a comma.
    A comma would be correct in that example, too; it just wouldn’t mean the same things. It would get another intonation across.
    Really, I’m baffled at the idea that anyone could possibly believe that such questions of punctuation depend on which word happens to follow. Is this kind of bizarro logic taught in schools in English-speaking countries? ~:-|

  93. jamessal says:

    You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
    The California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) is a prison in a small desert town called Norco, CA, with several rehab programs for the inmates, and when I was living out there, among people who had reason to refer to all the nearby prisons, everyone called CRC “The Hotel.” Local lore had it that The Eagles wrote Hotel California with CRC in mind: On a dark desert highway…. I only found out it wasn’t true after repeating it authoritatively for over a year.

  94. Well, now I’m convinced; are you sure it isn’t true?

  95. As long as I went to the trouble of looking for Oxford grammar books, since the Oxford brand seems to carry such authority with some people here, let me quote a couple of interesting extracts that I found on my excursion. The most interesting part I’ve put in bold:

    Earlier punctuation reflected spoken delivery, marking especially the pauses where breath would be taken. Since the eighteenth century it has been based on grammatical structure, marking sentences, clauses, and some types of phrase. Broadly speaking, it has the function either of linking items (e.g. three potatoes, two carrots, and an onion) or of separating them (e.g. I don’t know. Ask someone else.)

    In a series of adjectives, a comma is used when the meanings are not linked (e.g. a small, neat room) but is not used when they are (e.g. a silly little boy). Various marks (brackets, dashes, and commas) are used to separate off passages that interrupts the main structure of the sentence (e.g. This tile (despite its fresh colours) is more than two hundred years old).

    Grammatically complete units can be separated off by lighter punctuation than the normal full stop, either to link parallel statements (semicolon)(e.g. I wasn’t going to leave; I’d only just arrived), or to lead from one thought to the next (colon) (e.g. I wasn’t going to leave: I stood my ground).

    Punctuation (the hyphen, the coma) is also used to avoid grammatical or semantic ambiguity (e.g. a natural-gas producer versus a natural gas-producer, The quarrel over, the friendship was resumed versus The quarrel over the friendship was resumed).

    The above paragraphs seem particularly wise to me because they avoid the authoritarianism inherent in both the prescriptivist (because some muckety-muck says so) and descriptivist (because the “wisdom of the crowd” says so) war camps in favor of a discussion of the actual function of punctuation and why using it in a particular way makes sense.
    ۪

  96. DM: What utter nonsense! The semicolon is there to indicate that the voice goes down (rather than up) and a pause follows! It’s a stronger separation than a comma.
    A comma would be correct in that example, too; it just wouldn’t mean the same things. It would get another intonation across.
    Really, I’m baffled at the idea that anyone could possibly believe that such questions of punctuation depend on which word happens to follow. Is this kind of bizarro logic taught in schools in English-speaking countries? ~:-|

    DM seems to be saying punctuation can be read like notes and rests in musical notation. No, this is not taught in American classrooms in any way, shape, or form. It is true that the voice often falls at the end of a complete thought, but the punctuation is there to mark complete thoughts, and not voice pitch. Intonation isn’t important anyhow unless you’re reading out loud; I don’t think most people do that often, if at all.
    There have been attempts to teach intonation of English in ESL. Here is an example written in the 70′s. I find it rather strange and hard to follow and can only imagine a non-native speaker would be equally perplexed. I would also argue that there is more than one way to do the intonation.

  97. michael farris says:

    Well over twenty years ago one of the linguistics professors who’ve had the greatest effect on me said (paraphrasing) “linguists have never dealt well with intonation”. Not much has changed since then. I’ve been looking for good ways of teaching intonation that most students can roughly follow and have met failure after failure. Part of the problem in Poland is that students immediately understand the _concept_ of contrastive stress, they just don’t hear it (or apply it very differently than most English speakers do).
    That said, the sample Nijma linked to seems simple and clear as a bell and what students are able to learn (if not always apply in real time). It’s the trickier parts that native speakers understand/apply in real time but which non-native speakers fumble and stumble with like the student who told her (British working class) teacher:
    I learned proper English. (while stressing “I” and not understanding why the teacher got _Really_ upset).
    I remember trying (in vain) to explain why no, you don’t say _winter_ vacation, you say winter _vacation_.

  98. Firefox search function
    Is this “find” under the edit tab?
    jamessal:
    In looking over Jamessal’s examples, most of them occur in sentences that already contain commas. This usage is noted in such an august authority as answers.com that I mentioned earlier:
    “The various implementations of the semicolon in English include:… Between items in a series or listing containing internal punctuation, especially parenthetic commas, where the semicolons function as serial commas…”
    I was also able to find reference to this “serial comma” usage in some “grammar for adults” book on my library visitation, but in the book this was coupled with the observation that many such complex sentences lack clarity. Probably half of Jamessal’s examples I would place in this category.
    Once the examples with multiple commas in the sentence are removed form jamessal’s examples, we are left with four examples from book review publications, and since jamessal tells us one publication is the spinoff from the other, it may very well reflect an inhouse style determined by just one person.
    Those four examples grate with me–slow down my reading comprehension, and give me a “what is wrong with this picture” feeling–and I’m not just sure why. Take this one: “Most SS men were Nazis by conviction and party membership; but the German policemen and soldiers who killed Jews were not necessarily members of the National Socialist Party.” I think when I see the semi-colon I expect the two thoughts to be closely related as well as standalone sentences, but this is not really a parallel construction.
    The second phrase doesn’t really stand on its own either, unless you hold with starting a sentence with “but”, which I still argue is proper in conversation or informal usage. But that’s just me.

  99. jamessal says:

    Nijma, not one of the semicolons in my examples functions as a serial comma. Multiple commas don’t necessarily indicate a list. If you really think you have a point here, maybe you could show me what you think constitutes a list.
    You might also want to consider that the original sentence I suggested might be improved with a semicolon also had multiple commas — a list, in fact, though the semicolon would have had no part of it. I actually suggested the semicolon because, since the list was nearby, I thought it might make it easier to distinguish how each punctuation mark was functioning.
    unless you hold with starting a sentence with “but”
    Where did you come up with this? Popular usage aside, there isn’t a magazine or journal or publishing house or style guide in existence that’s so proper (if you like) that it frowns on starting sentences with “but.” I think this is a good opportunity for you to consider the criteria by which you deem usages to be acceptable — because NOBODY is with you on this.

  100. michael farris, It seems you are talking about two different things: intonation and stress. I once read a book–don’t remember the name of it–that used italics to show where the author was putting the stress in the sentence. She was rather amusing at first, but after seeing so many italicized words in every paragraph I got a little tired of it and decided I absolutely could not finish the book.
    Teaching intonation I think is a bit like teaching pronunciation. You have to pick it up by listening to native speakers. The current wisdom is not to correct for pronunciation unless it hinders understanding or would embarrass the student. (Like the difference between “shit” and “sheet”–but my Hispanic students would find it hard to swear even if they wanted to!) It’s really hard to teach anyhow–some say students can only learn slowly over time from living in the culture and listening to and mimicking a variety of native speakers. And there is so much variation, how could you begin to teach it. Even in the vacation example, you would say “winter VACATION” most of the time, but in theory you could also say “WINTER vacation” in some context if you wanted to contrast it with a vacation in another season.
    The rise and fall of pitch to signal sentences and questions I have noticed in both Arabic and Spanish–maybe it’s hardwired into the way we learn language. My Hispanic students have trouble recognizing a difference in word order for making yes/no questions (“He is a student” v “Is he a student”). For them it’s totally a matter of changing the pitch at the end of the sentence (“Él es estudiante.” v “¿Él es estudiante?”, not “¿Es él estudiante?” which is textbook Spanish).
    When I have to use the book I linked to, and do one of the exercises with intonation, I mostly just pronounce it the way I usually do. But then at times I notice I’m not really pronouncing it like the book and try to follow the book more. But who is correct, me, with a fairly standard midwestern accent or a book that is forty years old? Then it becomes a game for me to pronounce it in as many different “correct” ways as I can think of. (Repetition drills are currently out of vogue, but that’s how I learned–audiolingual method–and the students keep asking about pronunciation–oh, wait, “model sentences” are still politically correct).

  101. michael farris says:

    “michael farris, It seems you are talking about two different things: intonation and stress”
    No, stress is part of intonation.
    “You have to pick it up by listening to native speakers”
    That’s like saying “don’t worry about tone in Chinese, just listen to native speakers” The fact that no one has yet distilled the rules in easily teachable form does not mean there aren’t distillable rules.
    “The current wisdom is not to correct for pronunciation”
    This is part of the ideology of trying to pretend English is simpler than it is. I get students who are smart as whips, but they’ve spent five years on average with no hint whatsoever than intonation is important. Basic intonation patterns need to be part of first year English classes (to do otherwise is to comdemn students to linguistic marginalization).
    “But then at times I notice I’m not really pronouncing it like the book”
    This is probably a question of allophonic (not phonemic) variation.

  102. Jamessal; you sort of have to conflate the “parenthetic commas” thing with the “avoid grammatical or semantic ambiguity” thing. They’re all “meta commas” in the sense that they’re used as commas, but the “semicolon commas” are used differently from the “comma commas”, although they are all being used in a comma way and according to comma conventions.
    But I suppose you will fuss about that one too.

  103. stress is part of intonation
    I’m trying to compare with music, which distinguishes between pitch and stress or accent.
    trying to pretend English is simpler than it is
    maybe just a realistic approach about what it is possible to teach and what you are going to choose to present in a class with time limitations. In high school we didn’t do that until the 4th year and even then it wasn’t in the textbook. Even then, a lot of the students didn’t get it, and in high school, only the a certain type of student chooses foreign language electives and goes through all four years. In adult education, if they have 50% attendance, that’s a good student–they have jobs and children besides and have to do the best they can.
    I’ll have to ask my student if they ever look at the wavy lines in the intonation exercises and if it helps them. Maybe it’s something that should be brought back, like, dare I say it, the repetition drills.
    allophonic (not phonemic) variation
    no, I mean I’m not pronouncing it with a higher frequency pitch where the book says it goes higher.

  104. micahel farris are you aware of the “dogs eat bones” exercise? It’s supposed to demonstrate something unique about stress in English.

  105. No, stress is part of intonation.
    You surprise me, Michael Farris. That is definitely an unsafe assertion. Both terms have traditionally been used in more than one sense, for a start. Careful!

  106. marie-lucie says:

    MF: You surprise me too. Of course, stress and intonation (which have standard definitions in linguistics) are linked, but they are not the same, and depending on the students’ original language(s) they will have more or less trouble with one or the other. In English both are important and have to be taught formally if they work differently from the students’ language, the same way as phonemic differences.
    Writing this, I just realized why there are nursery rhymes in English but not in French: it’s because the strong stress-based rhythm of English lends itself to a quasi-musical use which is satisfying to children. In French there are comptines which also involve stress but are used exclusively to “count without counting” in order to choose participants in a game such as le chat “tag” (whoever gets the last syllable becomes le chat, here “it”). Apart from that, French stress is both very light and predictable, so many French speakers have the hardest time with the placement of stress in English (I don’t, so others usually think I must be German).
    Nijma: The rise and fall of pitch to signal sentences and questions I have noticed in both Arabic and Spanish–maybe it’s hardwired into the way we learn language.
    Two languages are not enough to generalize. Many languages do not use different intonation for both statements and questions but have various ways of differentiating the two, for instance by starting or ending the sentence with a special marker (word, prefix or suffix), obviating the need for a different intonation. And by “question” you are referring to “yes/no questions” alone, not “wh-questions” which do not necessarily need to use the same intonation, precisely because the “wh-word” at the beginning is enough to signal that the utterance is a question (this is true in both English and Spanish).
    Your intonation does not work the same way as the book’s: I am not familiar enough with US accents to know what you are talking about, but there may be something you do without hearing it. Perhaps if you try to tape the examples and listen to yourself, you might perceive something you did not hear “from the inside”? Just a suggestion. The examples you give (in the link) of how to represent intonation look good, although the changes in pitch level look too abrupt. Maybe you need to look at several textbooks to find one where you are more comfortable with the style of representation.

  107. jamessal says:

    Jamessal; you sort of have to conflate the “parenthetic commas” thing with the “avoid grammatical or semantic ambiguity” thing…But I suppose you will fuss about that one too.
    I’m afraid my understanding of syntax is that it’s all fuss, no sort of conflations. No smudges in the sentence diagram.
    By the way, can anyone tell me how to adjust the margins when leaving comments (like for extended quotes) or is that really complicated?

  108. SnowLeopard says:

    If I wanted to read more about this systematically — specifically, the role of intonation, stress, and related factors on meaning in the languages of the world, where should I look? I would be grateful for a recommendation with copious examples from many languages where things are done differently than in English.

  109. jamessal: Do you mean blockquotes? You put <blockquote> before the text and </blockquote> after, and the result is:

    blockquote

  110. jamessal says:

    Yes,

    blockquotes!

    Thanks!

  111. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you, LH, I have been wondering the same thing, and I did not know what “blockquote” meant.

  112. blockquotes:
    You might want to use the preview function–the blockquote function here works a little differently from some others.
    jamessal: no sort of conflations
    But jamessal, that’s not what I meant. I was talking about the way the commas are used. Some of the sentences have so many commas used in so many ways within the same sentence that the sentence has become a “mixed use” housing complex for commas. The semicolon in your examples isn’t used as a semicolon-semicolon to indicate parallel structure or a grammatically complete unit; it’s used more as a macro-comma to set its different usage apart from the micro-commas in the same sentence. The fact that I have to invent language like “meta-comma” and “micro-comma” to try to explain how they are used in the sentences should tell you something about effectiveness of the usage.
    jamessal: Popular usage aside, there isn’t a magazine or journal or publishing house or style guide in existence that’s so proper (if you like) that it frowns on starting sentences with “but.”
    Isn’t that sort of, um, prescriptionist?
    I have just used “but” to begin half a dozen sentences in the last few comments. No one commented. No one snarked. No one even noticed. Certainly no one questioned my meaning. Now tell me again how it isn’t used in conversation or informal speech.
    jamessal: No smudges in the sentence diagram.
    Presecriptionist, presecriptionist, presecriptionist.
    Now we have to start talking to fit some arbitrary diagramming system?

  113. m-l:Maybe you need to look at several textbooks
    I have only seen this in the one textbook series–no where else have I seen anyone try to teach this as a concept. Typically I run into this when subbing and I’m handed a textbook ten minutes before class. As I mentioned before, the copyright on the text is 40 years old, so apparently the system is out of favor. Everything textbook these days is done by committees that try to follow with multiple standards groups. ESL textbook manufacturers now typically start their books with a chart to show how each chapter meets various standards entities’ requirements. I guess intonation isn’t high on the list.

  114. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma:

    I have just used “but” to begin half a dozen sentences in the last few comments. No one commented. No one snarked. No one even noticed. Certainly no one questioned my meaning. Now tell me again how it isn’t used in conversation or informal speech.

    I think that jamessal meant just the opposite: even “high-toned” magazines do NOT frown on starting sentences with but. You are the one who implied earlier that starting them that way was at least frowned upon, if not banned, in formal usage, although acceptable in informal usage.

  115. Well, now I’m convinced; are you sure it isn’t true?
    I’d certainly like it to be true, but after an admittedly half-hearted search of the interwebs, the only corroboration I found are the following comments (in this thread: http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1121):

    I was always told that the Hotel California is now a prison drug rehabiltaton center in Norco (Southern Cal), California. It actually has tunnels ect all underneath of it, which is from the “Al Capone” days. Gangsters always had used these under ground tunnels, & they usually ran a good ways under the cities in order to execute their pans & as a way of escape
    - Debra, Hilo, HI
    I heard that this song is about the time Don henley spend in a rehab facility in Norco. Which is not the Norco Prision. I know a guard that works there and the picture on the front of the album is the front of the prision. Hard to dispute this one!!!
    - michelle, Riverside, CA

    I knew a Michelle in Riverside too.

  116. ML: Thanks for clarifying that.
    Nijma: How about we just drop it, huh? No hard feelings.

  117. ML:

    These
    blockquotes
    are
    fun,
    huh?

  118. By the way, I’d no idea Riverside was as you portray it in Leaving Dirty Jersey. I’ve never been there; I’d just always thought of it as a desolate but middle-of-the-road campus location — other UC campuses like UC Davis spring to mind.
    It’s got to be true if the prison is on the album cover, I’d say. I’m off to wiki…

  119. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma: If your textbooks do not mention intonation, then what you need to look for is something which does. I would look for introductory linguistics textbooks, which will mention the subject (look in the index). Some of these books are directed specifically at teachers of English (as first or second language), but all will have English examples even if they also show other languages.
    Different books may have a different way of representing the “melodic line” which is intonation, but the principle will be the same, so choose whichever representation (wavy lines, steps, overall curves, whatever) is more intuitively appealing to you than others.
    Since (I believe) you are in Chicago or thereabouts, you can look in a university or other large library, and also in used bookstores which sell academic books. Don’t worry about the date of publication as the data and representation will not have changed appreciably over the years for this particular linguistic topic (unlike a few others).

  120. marie-lucie says:

    jamessal: How did you do that? I tried to replicate it but could not.

  121. It’s got to be true if the prison is on the album cover, I’d say.
    I should have said, it isn’t. I’ve been there several times, and that ain’t it.
    By the way, I’d no idea Riverside was as you portray it in Leaving Dirty Jersey.
    Oh, it’s not that bad; it just has a few rough neighborhoods, rough bars, a seedy unberbelly — and whole lotta meth. The surrounding desert towns, like Rubidoux, are whole lot worse. But really, if you wanted to you could stay out trouble just about anywhere; it’s not like Camden or Trenton or, especially these day, Philly.

  122. ML:(blockquote)like(blockquote)this(blockquote)over(blockquote)and(blockquote)over.

  123. ML:

    like
    this
    over
    and
    over.

  124. marie-lucie says:

    jamessal, great!

    I
    was
    doing
    it
    wrong.

  125. even “high-toned” magazines do NOT frown on starting sentences with but
    So starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction is now okay? I’m not sure I would try that in an academic paper, but it would explain why some people want to use a semicolon, assuming they agree with the principle of using semicolons to join phrases that are grammatically complete.

  126. jamessal, I shall try to drop it, even though some consider Vikings to be genetically incapable of ending feuds. Not to worry though, these days a Viking feud rarely involves blood.

  127. jamessal: Somewhere about six fathoms down this thread you starting calling my semi-colon your semi-colon. Keep your hands off.

  128. Socially and in politics the Scandinavians are the most sensible and sophisticated people in the world. Unfortunately for John Emerson they don’t bear grudges (or arms, except for the Finns).

  129. michael farris says:

    To be clear I was thinking of sentence stress rather than word stress and to my way of thinking sentence stress (roughly which words receive greater stress in the sentence) is a major component of intonation in native varieties of English.
    There are few things more disheartening than meeting a group of 15 students who have studied the language on average over five years and who are pretty fluent in many ways and quickly realizing that ‘the voice goes down at the end of a statement’ has never been mentioned to them.
    What’s worse, where I live the local intonation patterns in Polish feature a raise in pitch on the last syllable in statements and even students from other parts of Poland quickly pick up this habit (without realizing it) and it gets carried over into their English.

  130. Are you sure it didn’t start life as a colon?

  131. jamessal says:

    Not to worry though, these days a Viking feud rarely involves blood.
    I sure hope not.
    jamessal: Somewhere about six fathoms down this thread you starting calling my semi-colon your semi-colon. Keep your hands off.
    That’s very funny, Picky. Nice to see you here.

  132. The comma is a valuable, useful punctuation device because it separates the structural elements of sentences into manageable segments. The rules provided here are those found in traditional handbooks; however, in certain rhetorical contexts and for specific purposes, these rules may be broken.

  133. David Marjanović says:

    the punctuation is there to mark complete thoughts, and not voice pitch.

    …but voice pitch marks complete thoughts in just the same way.
    Where orthographies differ (like how English forbids putting a comma in front of relative clauses and the like, while German requires it), you’ll find that intonation differs (within languages).
    For the record, I basically wasn’t taught punctuation at all. I picked it up from reading — and I know people who were apparently expected to pick it up the same way and failed.

    Intonation isn’t important anyhow unless you’re reading out loud; I don’t think most people do that often, if at all.

    Everything I read silently has an intonation, and misinterpretations (like when I get stuck by wrong punctuation, a missing hyphen in English, or the fact that there are many cases in English where a word could be a plural noun or a 3rd-person singular verb) have different intonations from correct interpretations.

    I remember trying (in vain) to explain why no, you don’t say _winter_ vacation, you say winter _vacation_.

    Astoundingly, I was never taught this. Most of the time, the German rule — the components of compound nouns each keep their own stress patterns, and the stress of the first component is strongest — holds in English, so I never noticed in school that it doesn’t hold all the time, and neither the textbooks nor the teachers ever mentioned it. I freaked out when I read the posts on John Wells’s Phonetic Blog about the utter chaos that are the compounds that start with “Christmas”.

    What’s worse, where I live the local intonation patterns in Polish feature a raise in pitch on the last syllable in statements [...]

    Oh, that exists in some kinds of English, too, where it’s called “uptalk” — search Language Log for it (it’s mentioned there regularly, because it drives some people absolutely nuts).

  134. I’m currently reading Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books aloud to my wife. They’re set during an alternative Napoleonic Wars (“alternative” as in “dragons”), and the style is interesting. I’d expect to find current English (of the mid-2000s) in narration but period English in dialogue, but instead we constantly hear of a character “shifting [changing] his clothes” even in the narrative. It’s not 100% consistent, but what is?
    Most relevantly, though, the books are punctuated entirely rhetorically. If I silently count one after each comma, one-two after each semicolon, one-two-three after each colon, and one-two-three-four after each terminal mark, I get exactly the right pausess to read the book aloud. Modern structural punctuation, though I prefer it and use it myself, does me no such favors.
    My father, born 1904, also punctuated his writings entirely rhetorically, at least in manuscript, though editors probably fixed it up. I showed him an example of the contrast from a usage book (I forget which, perhaps Follett):
    “an old, and to his generation lost, liberator” (rhetorical)
    vs.
    “an old and, to his generation, lost liberator” (structural).
    He preferred the first.

  135. marie-lucie says:

    JC: “an old, and to his generation lost, liberator” (rhetorical)
    vs.
    “an old and, to his generation, lost liberator” (structural).
    I would prefer the first one too, which does agree with the structure of the phrase within the framework of modern syntactic theory, by suggesting pauses and stresses in accordance with the roles and relationships of the main words in the phrase.
    This sentence fragment is a noun-phrase, in which the most important element, placed at the end, is the noun “liberator”. The adjectives “old” and “lost” are parallel, both being part of a coordinate adjective phrase (“old and … lost”) placed before the noun instead of a possible single adjective such as “old”. The first version preserves the unity of the adjective phrase by placing a pause between “lost” and the noun “liberator”, to which both adjectives apply, not just “lost”. By not pausing between “generation” and “lost” it leaves the main stress to fall on the adjective “lost” which is the partner of “old” in the adjective phrase (the prepositional phrase “to his generation” is structurally secondary to the adjective “lost”). The pause before the noun suggests that the entire adjective phrase is now over and the noun to which the adjectives apply can be uttered.
    The second version puts pauses after words (“and” and “generation”) which are secondary within the adjective phrase, and therefore should not be emphasized, rather than on those which are crucial to the phrase (“old” and “lost”) and which should be emphasized before we come to the final noun. The lack of a comma between “lost” and “liberator” in the second version seems to imply that “lost liberator” is a phrase in itself, instead of “old and lost” belonging together (after the interruption of “to his generation”) and applying equally to the noun “liberator”.
    I don’t think there is any contradiction between “rhetorical” and “structural”: the first version takes care of both (to be picky, an extra comma could be added between “and” and “to”). We use stresses and pauses in order to make our sentences clear when we speak, and punctuation, which is supposed to clarify structure and meaning when the voice is missing, should not contradict what our voice would make clear.

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