Comma Rules

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by wynn, Aug 13, 2011.

  1. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    Is the punctuation here correct or not?
    Are there variations?

    * * *
    Humphrey Bogart, at the end of Casablanca, said, famously, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

    * * *

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  3. Robert Schunk Registered Senior Member

    It's (sort of) correct, but a little awkward.

    I would have written that sentence thus:

    "At the end of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart famously said: "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
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  5. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    In my writing and editing I look for clarity. I put in the minimum punctuation to achieve that. I would remove one comma from that sentence: Humphrey Bogart, at the beginning of "Casablanca," said famously, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

    I don't think leaving out the comma between "said" and "famously" is going to confuse anybody. Sure you could rearrange your sentence the way Robert did, but when I edit I try to resist the temptation to put everything in my own voice. Besides, I don't like "famously said." Nothing specifically wrong with it and I'm sure I've heard or read it that way. If Robert wrote it that way I would probably grit my teeth and leave it alone so it sounds like he wrote it instead of me, but I certainly would not change your way to his way.

    BTW, we put the names of books in italics, but movies go in quotation marks. In fact, the AP Stylebook recognizes the fact that not all electronic formats allow italics, so they put book titles in quotation marks too.
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  7. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    Humphrey Bogart, at the end of Casablanca, said, famously, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

    The punctuation is correct, but it's a clumsy sentence.

    The commas bracket subordinate phrases:

    Humphrey Bogart (at the end of Casablanca) said (famously) "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

    Remove those and you're left with:

    Humphrey Bogart said "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

    The extra information about where he said it and that it is a famous saying is not vital to the sentence; it just adds colour.

    I like Robert's re-write above.
  8. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    Read it out loud. It has pomp.
  9. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    One can say something loudly, or gently, or quietly - but can one say something famously?

    Because what the sentence means it that Humphrey Bogart's "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" at the end of "Casabanca" became famous - and that it could become only after the film was made, so he couldn't have said it famously already back when the film was made.
    So "famously" here refers to the whole sentence, not only to "said."

    So like James says, the comma between "said" and "famously" seems to be necessary.
  10. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Since I make a living as a writer and editor my credentials make me an authority here, albeit at the lowest recognizable level. I don't find it clumsy and I would not edit it except to delete the last comma.
    It's adequate and I would not change it either, not even the punctuation. However, I find putting "famously" before "said" more off-putting than the (allegedly) unnecessary comma in the original.
    Since "pomp" can mean both "splendor" and "ostentation," I guess I can say truthfully that your statement has ambiguity.

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    I can find no dictionary that defines "famously" individually. It's just listed offhandedly as the obvious adverbial form of "famous." In my practice I give words that come with no guidance a lot of leeway. The lexicographers apparently believe that we can be trusted to A) use them in sensible ways without stretching their definitions too far and B) understand them well enough when others use them in such sensible ways. I think the use of the word in this case is sensible and I understood it. I daresay everyone participating in this thread understood it.

    English is only slightly inflected compared to most of the other Indo-European languages, but that means that is is, indeed inflected. It suffers the fate of all inflected languages: Syntax and inflection taken together may leave some ambiguity in divining the meaning of a sentence. We may have to also take into account (omigod no!) context. The context of this sentence makes the meaning of "famously" obvious. We know that both Bogart and "Casablanca" were and still are famous, yet not for a moment do we wonder whether "famously" applies to either the actor or the film. No, we instantly associate it with the quote that follows.

    In Chinese, with its total absence of inflections and its unbendable rules for syntax, we'd probably have to say something like "the famous phrase, 'I think this is the...'."
    Remember that the primary use of a comma is to represent a pause in speech. I can imagine the sentence recited out loud both with and without a pause there, so the comma becomes a matter of style.
  11. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    Perhaps "to say something famously", or at least "said famously" or "famously said" have become something like fixed phrases, as they do seem popular.
    That could imply different comma guidelines.
  12. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    Not in German, nor in many other languages. I have trouble with English comma rules, they are not much like German ones.
  13. OnlyMe Valued Senior Member

    First, I am probably one of the worst offenders when considering the use of commas when not needed and omitting them when it would add clarity. That said, I believe there is an underlying truth in the above quote that could well improve communication throughout these forums. Just attempting to understand the general or larger context of a post as compared to isolated statements, can often affect the conversation in a significant manner.

    Though for me the context of this thread and various contributions have been informative, they will unfortunately not likely have a lasting affect on my use of the comma. In that respect, I am most likely a lost cause.
  14. Sarkus Hippomonstrosesquippedalo phobe Valued Senior Member

    Personally I think leaving out that last comma lessens the sentence somehow... you lose a sense that the "famously" is almost a reminder rather than a statement.
    Afterall, if what was said is supposedly "famous", then there would be no reason to merely state it as a fact as in "said famously"... but there might be an intent of reminding, which I think the comma offers.

    I certainly wouldn't say it is wrong to leave out, but to me the original is better than without that last comma, and to me just sounds better.

    I also prefer the original over the other variations offered.
    But I do prefer "famously said" to the comma-free "said famously" (although the original "said, famously," version is my preference).
  15. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Punctuation standards even differ between the US and the UK. The Brits leave the period off of common title abbreviations such as Mr and Dr, and they often leave out the closing comma in phrases which, to me, seem to be clearly in need of bracketing.

    German is an unusual language because even though it is much more highly inflected than English it also has a much more inflexible syntax. The rules for commas seem quite consistent. Schachtelsätzen are rigorously nested, and each one must be bracketed by commas, nicht wahr?
    It changes the reader's focus. I didn't remember that quotation, so I didn't know it was famous. Now I do. Of course in the context of this discussion we don't know why that's important, but this is merely a side effect of taking the sentence out of its original context in order to analyze its grammar.

    We probably would have been better off to see the entire paragraph in which it occurs.
    They're all correct. Being a good editor requires a lot of discipline, because you only get to enforce rules, not your own preferences.
  16. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    German certainly is not "unsual" to Germans ...

    I don't understand what you mean by "flexible syntax"?
    'Flexible word order,' perhaps?
  17. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Many languages have features that set them apart from their relatives. Romanian is an unusual member of the Romance language branch because it alone retains the Latin noun case system.
    That's part of it. Syntax is the set of rules for constructing phrases and sentences. In the Indo-European languages, this refers to the kinds of words used (nouns, adjectives, etc.), their placement in the sentence (word order) and their inflection (case, tense, number, etc.). Other language families have different components and different rules.

    The rules for English syntax are rather flexible. This list could fill a book:
    • People who talk during movies bother me./People that talk during movies bother me.
    • I said that he would be here./I said he would be here.
    • Fish swim in water./Fish swim in the water.
    • I wish he were more punctual./I wish he was more punctual.
    • This is the friend you saw me with./This is the friend with whom you saw me.
    The rules for German syntax are rather inflexible, outside of slang usage. When you're constructing a sentence you don't have many choices for the sequence of the words, very few of the words can be optionally eliminated, and there is almost no leeway at all in the inflections.
  18. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    English is hardly a Germanic language, given that it is basically a mixture of some old Germanic languages and especially Latin.

    That is not what Germans typically think of English ...

    Yes, you very much do, it all depends on what you want to say.

    Gestern bin ich in der Bibliothek gewesen.
    Ich bin gestern in der Bibliothek gewesen.
    In der Bibliothek bin gestern ich gewesen (->und nicht etwa du).
    In der Bibliothek bin ich gestern gewesen (->und nicht etwa heute).

    Same words, different order, different meaning (the parts in the Klammern are additions that are not necessary, I just added them to explain). In English, you need additional words to express the same:

    Yesterday, I was in the library.
    I was in the library yesterday.
    Yesterday, it was I who was in the library.
    It was yesterday (and not today), that I was in the library.

    Why would that be good or necessary?

    And why would that be good or necessary?
  19. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The structure and grammar are solidly Germanic and that's what identifies it taxonomically. It has a huge overlay of foreign words--French from the Norman occupation, Latin and Greek from the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and lately from all over the world. But most of the European languages borrow heavily, if not quite as heavily as we do. German is, once again, unusual for its reluctance to borrow foreign words. Everybody else says "automobile," "hydrogen" and "television," but you say Kraftwagen, Wasserstoff and Fernseh!
    I didn't mean to imply that it was either good or necessary. Every language has to carry a certain amount of redundancy. But in a language with many inflections, the inflections carry a great deal of the meaning, and this makes it possible to rearrange the words in the sentence, or simply eliminate some, without making it hard to understand or even changing the meaning.

    Your examples notwithstanding, word order in German does not allow as much freedom as in English: for example you can never separate a preposition from its object, which we do all the time. And there aren't very many words in a sentence that can be eliminated: you have to include the definite article in places where it conveys no meaning at all but simply identifies the gender and case of the noun! You can't say "I want air," or "Cats are nice companions." The air, the cats, the companions.
  20. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    As a further example, on principle, Slavic languages don't borrow foreign words easily either, especially not from non-Slavic languages.

    And it is Fernsehen.

    If such eliminations and changes of word order are neither good nor necessary, then why complain about them?

    ... which is something we find important.

    Of course you can; in fact, in this kind of general sentences, you're supposed to not use the article:

    Ich will Luft!
    Katzen sind nette Gesellen.
  21. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I am not complaining. I'm simply pointing out an attribute of German that differentiates it from the other Germanic languages.
    We dumped that 1,000 years ago.

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    If I'm not mistaken, case has also been lost in Dutch and the Scandinavian languages. I don't know about Frisian.
    I see. Our professor neglected to tell us that.
  22. Veselin Andreev Registered Member


    thanks for this brilliant explanation...!
  23. Walter L. Wagner Cosmic Truth Seeker Valued Senior Member

    Those aren't good examples of clumsiness continuing in word usage. Automobile is 4 syllables, Kraftwagen only 3; hydrogen is 3 and wasserstoff 3, but they both mean literally the same thing (hydro=water, gen=make; wasser=water, stoff=stuff); television is 4 syllables, fernseh(en) is 2 or 3, and both mean the same thing -- faraway see).

    Try this one instead, a street name in Heidelberg: Handschuhheimerlandstrasse, usually abbreviated as H'landstrasse.

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