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Monday, December 18, 2006

Comma Comma Comma Cameleon

(To anyone looking for Boy George lyrics: the word you want is "karma". I know he doesn't pronounce it that way when he sings the song, but that's what it is. For everyone else, this is a post about grammar.)

My favorite part of my job is proofreading patent applications. I have pretty free reign over correcting the language of my attorneys. Of course, if I could, I would do away with all the legalese in favor of plain language, but unfortunately attorneys get three years of legalese in law school, and then they simply don't know how to function without it.

The law would not be nearly as complicated if it were written in plain language. Now, plain language does not mean dumb language. It does not mean informal language. It merely means writing in a way that an average fluent speaker of the language would be able to understand what is being said. So in other words, jargon, code, and anything else for which the meaning is not readily apparent to an average speaker is not plain language. But legalese isn't going anywhere any time soon, and so as far as my editing goes, I try to make the legalese as pretty as possible.

Legalese employs several idiosyncratic usages of language. For instance, I believe lawyers are fairly unique in their use of judgment without an E instead of judgement with an E. If you ask me, the version with the E makes more sense, but I guess that's moot since English isn't well known for making orthographic sense. As another, more familiar example, attorneys are rather annoyingly fond of using said as a demonstrative pronoun instead of a past tense verb. (Other demonstratives include [but are not limited to, as we would say if we were speaking legalese], that, this, and sometimes the.) See the example below, where said replaces a more natural the:

Said as demonstrative vs. verb:
The librarian said the book is on the shelf, said shelf being located on the other side of the room.

You will note that said is used as a verb in the first half of the sentence and as a demonstrative in the second half. I tried to come up with a less stuffy-sounding example, but the truth is, when you use said as a demonstrative, you can't help but sound stuffy.

Grammatical principles are flexible, and that's the way it should be. Flexible use, and even misuse, allows for language to change over time. Language purists think that change is bad, but if language were never to change, we would be speaking an entirely different form of English today. Try watching a movie or listening to a recording from the mid-1900's. You'll find that Americans today don't speak the same way they did even half a century ago. That's language change in progress, my friends. These changes allow us to go from Beowulf to the Canterbury Tales to Hamlet to the Catcher in the Rye to Harry Potter.

But even though grammatical principles may be flexible, Linguaphiles like myself still tend to favor certain alternatives. Take for instance the following example showing two alternatives of comma use:

3-item list with final comma separation: Me, myself, and I.
3-item list without final comma separation: Me, myself and I.

I prefer the first alternative, as I was taught that in a list of three or more items, a comma separates each item, even the final two items which are also separated by the word and. Others believe it is ok to omit the final comma. In fact, my boss even says that using the final comma is redundant because of the separation already provided by and. But this belief that the comma is redundant with the and fails to recognize that and can perform different semantic functions itself, so the presence or absence of the final comma in a list of three may actually clear up ambiguity in interpretation. (And besides, since when have attorneys been concerned about weeding out redundancy?)  Personally, I just think it's safer to use the final comma as a rule.

The Non-List: By moving the apples, oranges and bananas could now be displayed.

The List: By moving the apples, oranges, and bananas, grapes could now be displayed.

These sentences look similar, but are syntactically different. The first sentence does not show a list. Apples is an object of the first clause, and oranges and bananas are the object of the second clause. The second sentence, however, does include a list. Apples, oranges, and bananas are the object of the first clause, and grapes are the object of the second clause. Visually when written and intonationally when spoken, the presence of the final comma aids in the correct phrasing of the second sentence. What if the second sentence did not include the final comma?:

Bad-form List: *By moving the apples, oranges and bananas, grapes could now be displayed.

This sentence reads awkwardly in the absence of the final comma. The first comma indicates a pause after apples, but the lack of final comma in the list causes oranges and bananas to be phrased as a single unit. By the time you get to grapes, you are confused and have to start the sentence again. The reading of this sentence is similar to what is known in linguistics as Garden Path sentences. In Garden Path sentences, you expect the sentence to go in one direction, but it ends up going somewhere else.

Thus, it is important to separate all items of a list with a comma. You might be able to get away with leaving the final comma out sometimes, but if you just get in the habit of using the final comma, you will probably not end up leading your reader down the Garden Path.

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