Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Comma on

As I've noted in a previous post there's little point in quibbling certain faux pas of rhetoric/linguistics (not that I'm implying those are merely two names for the same thing but for our purposes here let's go with it); the point of language is to convey meaning, and thus as long as the audience can discern what the speaker/writer intended without having to exert extra mental effort to get that, it's not worth belaboring instances where the speaker/writer did not comply with standard rules. That's not suggesting those of us who do spot the modest errors won't notice (and, if appropriate—such as in academic or professional contexts, or most certainly if one is a proofreader—offer recommendations to the offenders to help them try to avoid the same mistakes in the future), but in casual contexts I believe it's not worth getting worked up over.

As a test of who qualifies as the rhetoric sticklers I am talking about: If you noticed that first paragraph has only one period and that it's only through the use of what I suspect some would consider the questionable use of a semicolon that the single period is even possible, you are a likely candidate. In addition, if you bristled at seeing the closing clause concluded with a preposition, you are precisely the sort of person to whom I was referring. Just so we're clear. (And you have my sympathy, I assure you.)

Without question there are instances where such a person should have been involved and clearly was not (perhaps in the beginning of this sentence, where I start in the plural when referring to the "instances" but switch to the singular for "person" for the second part, as I wished to indicate each as an individual instance—that much certainly could be reconsidered by an editor if I had one, but I like to believe the meaning got through nonetheless). An example of that I noticed this morning while passing a billboard at a bus stop. The ad was for the California Lottery's "Set For Life" Scratchers game, and featured the line: "Go ahead, have the cashews from the mini bar."

The suggested message was that one should play the lottery because one might win a jackpot that would allow one to have the disposable income to splurge on items that otherwise seem too expensive for their actual worth, such as a bag of nuts available in a cabinet inside a hotel room.

While we could rip apart that implication quite easily (should not a jackpot winner set his/her sights on something loftier—not limited to but starting with the booze in said "mini bar"... or maybe buying the whole hotel—but I digress), we'll concede someone approved that specific text as conveying the desired implication.

What someone also approved was the use of punctuation in that message. That's what popped out to me.

I didn't get riled up or anything; there's nothing I gain from having any specific emotional response. However, I did find myself thinking, Those are two separate clauses: "Go ahead" and "have the cashews from the mini bar." A comma (which I am quite fond of using, I fully admit) is a very handy punctuation mark, but separating clauses in this way (without a conjunction joining the clauses) is not one of its uses. Between those clauses should have been a period, or perhaps a dash (if they wished the "have…" part to be an interjection) but not a comma. (A semicolon would have been a stretch, and likely would have come across as too highbrow for the tone they wished to convey.)

However, at least someone involved grasped the need for a punctuation mark of some kind after "ahead" to acknowledge the separation, and the overall meaning was conveyed.

I suppose the subtext is supposed to be: You have the chance to win a huge amount of money; you really shouldn't be dwelling on a blatant comma splice.

Perhaps they secretly wanted to prompt those of us with the proclivity to dwell on such things to be inspired to play merely so we could use that money to put up our own, more conventionally punctuated billboards. (Clearly they don't have enough money left after these promotions to hire someone for such a purpose.)

What a dollar could do.

1 comment:

  1. Bless you for having ANY understanding of grammar. The mindless seething masses sure don't.


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