Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Important info about "Commas"

A while back, I quoted Bill Brohaugh's famous observation that the only rule in writing is never begin a sentence with a comma.

To my great surprise and pleasure, Bill Brohaugh himself recently dropped through the Comment Trail on that post. I thought you folks might be interested in his comments, so I've promoted them to the body of this post:

David: Your advice is dead on, and all writers should pay heed. Creative rule-breaking can make for some dazzling writing. And writers should heed Raymond Obstfeld's advice, too. Raymond wrote a few articles for me when I edited Writer's Digest years ago.

I don't think you have to pay heed to my bit of advice quoted at the beginning of your post, though. I discovered while writing Everything You Know About English Is Wrong that beginning sentences with commas is not only acceptable, it is common. For those of you interested in an example, this very sentence begins with a comma--and that comma is the phrase "For those of you interested in an example." The first use of the word comma in English was a borrowing from Latin and Greek. A comma was a short phrase, not quite a sentence. (In fact, the OED gives as the definition of Greek comma “a piece cut off,” which might make a good model for people looking to tighten their prose.) The word comma in this definition, tracing back to ancient literature and in use in English by the 1500s, was subsequently transferred to the punctuation symbol that set off the short phrase, the piece cut off.

This language never ceases to surprise and fascinate me.


Now that falls into the category of truly arcane.

I'm off to find a copy of Everything You Know About English Is Wrong. It had a pub date of early May, 2008, so I'm betting it's on the shelves locally. If it isn't, Amazon US has it. And, for those Across the Water, Amazon UK has it as well.

And, thanks for dropping through, Bill--it's an honor to meet you.

1 comment:

Sam Taylor said...

Congratulations. I think.

But yeah... That's an amazing amount of detail on commas. Makes me wonder how much he knows about the exclamation point.