November 27, 2006

Three Parents?

Holy Baptism was celebrated at my church yesterday. Before the service, I checked the bulletin to find out who was being baptized. Here is what I read:
Elizabeth Bahia Steiffert, daughter of Julie & Patrick Seiffert and Steven L. Fong.
I puzzled over this for some time, trying to figure out how Elizabeth Bahia Steiffert could be the daughter of three people, two of them male. Eventually, I realized that a comma had been omitted before the final “and,” which I might have suspected earlier had I read the preceding line:
St. Paul’s welcomes its newest members to the Church:
This would have suggested that at least two people were being baptized. Also, the use of both the ampersand—a surprise in this relatively formal context—and the conjunction “and” suggested that Julie and Partrick were related more closely to one another than either was to Steven. How did I know that Steven was not the sperm donor for Elizabeth, however? (We live in a complex age.)

I thought the error was rather idiosyncratic, but some have suggested that such errors are quite common. The error, of course, is the failure to include the second comma setting off a non-restrictive element. In this case, the non-restrictive element is the appositive “daughter of Julie & Patrick Seiffert.” By not indicating where the appositive ends, the sentence invites misreading. (See How to Use Commas for more examples.)

In general, commas highlight sentence structure and prevent misreading. Unfortunately, writers are becoming increasingly parsimonious in their use of commas, and even The New Yorker allows the omission of a comma after an introductory phrase. When commas become optional, the reader can no longer rely on them to be reliable beacons of sentence structure. Instead, the lack of a comma where one might be expected could mean that there is no reason for a comma, but it could also mean that the writer simply chose not to use one.

Uncertain expectations regarding commas have even confused me when proofreading my own writing. My last post includes the following sentence:
For whatever reason the church failed to react to these constitutional changes, the failure was, I believe, a serious mistake, both tactically and canonically.
The sentence is punctuated correctly, but, in reviewing it—I was concentrating on mechanics and perhaps not paying sufficient attention to meaning—when I came to “reason,” I asked myself if I had left out a comma. Acting as copyeditor, of course, I was being a particularly suspicious reader, but, encountering the same sentence from a different writer, my general lack of confidence in others’ use of commas also would have disturbed the flow of my reading.

Proper comma use is not invariably needed to avoid ambiguity or to provent a sentence from leading the reader down the garden path, but it sometimes is, and writers do not invariably recognize the misreadings it is within their power to prevent. Using commas properly all the time, without consideration of when the rule “doesn’t matter” would be a great blessing for readers. Because inconsistent comma use requires exceptionally vigilant readers, we are all doing extra work becasue writers are lazy.

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