Lost in the words: a tale of two commas

Earlier this morning I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, and I came across a retweet concerning crop-circle art of Beto O’Rourke. About halfway through the text, I’d lost sight of the sentence structure. Why?

Here’s the tweet.

And here’s the text, copied exactly (links removed):

“Dying to know how this 2-acre “BETO 2020” crop circle made of sand, mulch, clay, rocks & pecan shells a little over a mile north of an Austin Texas airport less than a week after @BetoORourke announced his run for president shows up in @FEC campaign finance disclosures”

I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but by the time I got to “Austin Texas” I was asking myself what the crop circle did. I had yet to come to the relevant verb.

Grammar will help sort this out. The sentence subject isn’t present; it’s “I,” which is understood. “I’m dying to know.” That’s the basic sentence, here. However, that’s not the really important bit.

What is the writer dying to know? “How this crop circle” did something, presumably. You’ll notice I’m leaving out the modifiers. They’re not germane to the basic sentence. They add information, sure, but they’re not vital to a subject/verb structure.

A quick and dirty fix is to insert commas after “circle” and “president.” Then we have this:

Dying to know how this 2-acre “Beto 2020” crop circle, made of sand, mulch, clay, rocks & pecan shells a little over a mile north of an Austin Texas airport less than a week after @BetoORourke announced his run for president, shows up in @FEC campaign finance  disclosures

There’s no period because Twitter. That’s also why the subject, I, is understood and absent; it saves characters. Sure, we have 280 to play with now, but people are still stingy with them. This version uses 272.

Those commas I added indicate to the reader that what’s set off by them can be ignored safely to get to the meat of the sentence, which is this: Dying to know how this crop circle shows up in FEC campaign finance disclosures. (I’ve left out other modifiers, too, for clarity in making the point.) I’d prefer to see more commas, but as I said, this is quick and dirty. (Twitter register is oh, so forgiving.)

However, we could help readers more by making bigger changes. Those two commas are the minimum work. What if we rearrange the phrases and clauses a little?

Dying to know how this 2-acre “BETO 2020” crop circle shows up in @FEC campaign finance disclosures. Just over a mile north of an Austin, TX, airport, appearing less than a week after @BetoORourke announced his run for president. Made of sand, mulch, rocks, clay & pecan shells.

Two hundred seventy-eight characters. The gist of the tweet, which is the crop circle showing up in FEC documents, is together now rather than separated by a string of modifiers (“made of this and such,” “just over a mile north of an airport,” “less than a week after (he) announced his run for president”).  I also used “TX” instead of “Texas,” with commas where style required them. The least important information, what the circle is made of, comes at the end. We don’t have to use full sentences, again because Twitter.

Do we take time to edit like this before hitting “TWEET”? Of course not. We’re working at speed, on the fly. Some folks are better than others at composing succinct yet descriptive tweets.

This is the kind of work I once did for a national chain’s social media. I edited tweets and social media posts, which were scheduled to go up at specific times. When I see one that’s difficult to parse, my editor brain jumps in to see what can be done: what’s the least amount of editing necessary to help the reader? What more could be done if there’s time?

 

 

the long, cold winter (see? only one comma)

I’ve been seeing comma issues lately and I need to write about them.

Up there in the title, “long” and “cold” are what’s called “coordinate adjectives.” They modify the same noun (“winter,” in this case), so they’re coordinating their work. (Make sense? Good. Onward.) Continue reading “the long, cold winter (see? only one comma)”

Back to basics: commas and appositives

I’ll bet I scared someone already with the last word in that title.

Let’s start at the beginning. This post came about because of a conversation on Twitter, begun by this tweet from Andy Bechtel (@andybechtel):

I’m not agreeing with that decision, either. Nor are many folks. But there are a few who don’t understand why it’s wrong. This post is for them. (Maybe it’s for you. I don’t know.) Continue reading “Back to basics: commas and appositives”

A short (no, really), pithy post about a comma

See that comma after the closed parenthesis in the title up there?

That’s where it belongs. This isn’t a style issue. It’s a mechanics rule in AmE. (I suspect it’s the same for BrE, but I couldn’t find an entry for it in my copy of the New Oxford Style Manual.)

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen someone write a sentence with a parenthetical intrusion and put the comma before the opening parenthesis, like this:

I was walking with my mom the other day, (doctor’s orders, you know, after her surgery) and we saw blah blah blah.

It looks so odd, I stop dead every time. Think about it like this. You’re talking along to a friend, okay? And you interrupt yourself mid-thought to add something, but that thing you’re adding actually belongs to what you just said, not to what you’re about to say. It’s semantically and syntactically linked to what came before. In my example, the comment about doctor’s orders is linked to walking with Mom, not to whatever thing we saw.

That’s why the comma goes after the closing parenthesis of the intrusion. We keep the related thoughts — the main one and the related intrusion — together by putting the comma afterward. Of course, this is assuming you need a comma. I’m not going into the variations that don’t. This post is short (remember the title?), pithy, and about commas.

See? I just did it again in the last sentence of the previous paragraph. That’s how it’s done.

Commas: plain-language explanation #1

I expect this to become a series, so I’m numbering this post. If I’m wrong, well … I’ll come back later, in a year or two, and edit the title.

Aaaaanyway, let’s get to it.

This is about commas and adjectives. When you have a string of adjectives before a noun, how do you know if you need commas between them? (In grammar-speak, these are called coordinate or coordinating modifiers. No one remembers that, though, except for grammar geeks. Hence my choice to use plain language.) Continue reading “Commas: plain-language explanation #1”

Little old ladies and blue polyester uniform pants

Do you always need to separate a string of adjectives with commas?

The short answer: No.

Here’s a perfect example of when you don’t have to. Consider the phrase “blue polyester uniform pants.” (Thanks to Doug Metz for that!) Would you say “blue and polyester and uniform pants?” I sure wouldn’t. They’re blue polyester, and they’re uniform pants. Take it further. Would you say “blue polyester and uniform pants” if you were talking about that pair of pants? Again, I don’t think so.

The classic phrase often used as an exemplar is “little old lady.” Would you say “little and old lady?” Doubtful. Even if you add another adjective, you still are unlikely to use commas: little old blue-haired lady.

If you wouldn’t use “and” between the adjectives, you don’t need to use a comma, either. It’s a simple test that nearly always works. (I’m hedging a little because I’m certain if I were to make a definitive pronouncement, someone would comment “But Karen . . .” and blow it all out of the water.)

Agree to Disagree? Or: How Many Is (Are?) a Team?

It’s been a while since I wrote about subject-verb agreement. In fact, it’s been close to a year. I’ll leave the searching to you, though. I don’t want to take away all the fun.

The concept of agreement means that we want the same “number” (singular or plural) for our subject and our verb. When they don’t agree, we notice. Not because we know some arcane rule. Because it just sounds wrong. Very, painfully, obviously wrong. Most of the time, anyway.

The cat were lazing in the window.

How many cats? Only one? Then it’s “was lazing,” not “were.” Two or more? Then we need to fix “cats” and leave “were” alone. That one’s pretty clear, and a simple contextual reading will probably suffice for clarification. (This bypasses the rules for the subjunctive mood in English, which does weird things with number and tense, like “God save the queen” and “if I were you.” This isn’t that, and I’m not going there right now.)

But look at this one:

The A-group, as he called his team, were clocking out at the end of the shift.

On a quick read that sounds all right, maybe. Depends on how you like your collective nouns. They swing, you know. Singular or plural, either way, depending on the concept of “notional concord.” It also matters whether you’re an AmE or BrE speaker/writer. In the United States, we tend to treat “team” as a singular entity, like we do with companies. “Apple is announcing a new gadget.” “The team is entering the stadium.” (BrE speakers/writers tend to say “Apple are announcing a new gadget.” Looks weird to me, but it’s their style.) That matters, because the audience brings its expectations along to your work. What are your readers likely to expect? Go with what they’ll think. It’ll save you hassle in the long run (fewer 1-star reviews from grammar pedants worse than me).

If you’re an AmE speaker/writer, I suggest going with “The A-group, as he called his team, was clocking out. . . .” No one will argue with you, I don’t think. To check the flow and sense of it, remove what’s set off by the commas. “The A-group was clocking out.” If that sounds right to you in that form, it’s still right when you put that phrase back in: “The A-group, as he called his team, was clocking out.”

Certainly one could argue that a team comprises several members, and therefore could be considered as plural. That’s notional concord at work. What sounds right to you? What makes sense to you? After you figure that out, then ask the same about your audience. What will make them scream? Pick the other one.