March 19, 2008

A Punctuation Oddity

Having written several rather serious posts of late, perhaps it’s time for some comic relief, or something completely different, anyway.

In the February 2008 issue of Trains Magazine, I encountered this sentence:
With the ClassOne Dispatch system, from Basking Ridge, N.J.-based Avaya Inc. and Frisco, Texas-based ObjectTel Inc., BNSF radio calls now travel over what is believed to be the largest combination voice, data, and radio network in the world, expanding usefulness of the network, improving response times, and helping the company reduce costs.
There is reason to be thankful that I did not have to copyedit this sentence, which contains a number of pitfalls for the unwary editor. First, one has to be very sure about corporate and product names these days, which often violate conventional spelling (ClassOne and ObjectTel) and punctuation (Avaya Inc.) rules. The copyeditor (or fact checker) slipped up with “ObjectTel Inc.” The corporate name, apparently, is the slightly more conventional “ObjectTel, Inc.,” which you can verify from the company’s Web site.)

What particularly disturbed me about this sentence—yes, it is one sentence—is the way that Trains indicated the locations of the two companies responsible for the ClassOne Dispatch system.

Commas are used to set off instances of successive geographical or political divisions occurring in a sentence, as in this one: “The company has offices in Springfield, Missouri, and San Francisco.” We would normally expect commas around “N.J.” and “Texas” in the Trains sentence, except for the transformation of place names into compound adjectives. Whereas “Frisco-based ObjectTel” seems perfectly correct, “Frisco, Texas-based ObjectTel” does not. The punctuation seems to emphasize “Texas-based,” with “Frisco” left rather unconnected to the rest of the sentence. We expect a comma somewhere after “Texas,” which would make a clearer connection between city and state, but we don’t get one. Where would it go?

The Trains punctuation is surely defensible, though it is disconcerting. Because it juxtaposes two punctuation marks, most people would be reluctant to write “Frisco, Texas,-based ObjectTel,” but its meaning is clearer without its looking impossibly odd. More disconcerting is “Basking Ridge, N.J.-based Avaya,” where “Basking Ridge” becomes part of a semi-open, semi-hyphenated compound.

Sometimes there just seems not to be a fully satisfactory way of punctuating a sentence. In such case, we are better off recasting the sentence to avoid problems. I would have written:
With the ClassOne Dispatch system, from Avaya Inc., of Basking Ridge, N.J., and ObjectTel, Inc., of Frisco, Texas, BNSF radio calls now travel over what is believed to be the largest combination voice, data, and radio network in the world, expanding usefulness of the network, improving response times, and helping the company reduce costs.
Isn’t that clearer?

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