Put a comma on it!

NOTE: In case you missed it, the title of this post is a nod to Portlandia.

And now, back to our content.

Time flies when you’re logging billable hours, thus the absence of your humble editor from the premises. But, as usual, I took to the Google prompt when a series of tooth-gnashing adjectives separated by commas irritated me.

I won’t pretend that I knew the name of this phenomenon, but sure enough, a Google search found it for me: the coordinate adjective. When two coordinate adjectives describe the same noun, commas go between them. There are two simple tests:

1. If you add the word “and” between the adjectives, does the sentence still make sense?

2. If you reverse the order of the adjectives, does the sentence still make sense?

If the answer to #1 and #2 is yes, bingo: coordinate adjective. Put a comma on it! If the sentence fails #1 and #2, then it’s a cumulative adjective. A comma doesn’t go there.

Time after time, I see commas incorrectly inserted between coordinate adjectives, and it DRIVES ME CRAZY! I am becoming a stark, raving lunatic about it.


Test yourself

Test yourself

Can you spot the typo in this coloring sheet from Trader Joe’s? Yes, I shamelessly picked this up a while back just for the typo. It has been my experience that people don’t see mistakes in big type — we miss the obvious!

Does anyone read a newspaper like this?

Newspapers Work, a Belgian trade group, produced this video. Apparently the purpose is to show that newspapers make for absorbing reading, as not even the wildest stunts make readers look away. Props to the Poynter website for pointing this ad out.

I don’t know about this premise. I thought the whole purpose of the inverted pyramid (most important stuff first, continuing with gradually less important information to the end) was to facilitate skimming. I think someone slipped Adderall into these readers’ coffee the morning of the shoot.

Trends in punctuation (yes, really!)

Think something as staid as punctuation doesn’t ever change? I submit that grammar and punctuation are evolving even as we write. Of course, the trends are subtler than those in clothing, shoes or automobiles (remember fins?). But change is in the air nevertheless.

As a professional reader and writer, I’ve noticed a change in the way people use commas.  While it doesn’t keep me up at night, some of the new ways are jarring to my internal ear as I read silently.

For example, I keep seeing fewer commas — in most cases. The old rule about skipping commas after a short introductory phrase has been stretched to eliminate punctuation after wordy intros, too. My brain goes into overload when I’m reading and reading and reading, waiting for that comma break that never comes. Whew!

And another thing while I am ranting. (I’m TRYING to get the hang of this, but it still seems wrong.) What’s up with the multitude of commas in compound adjectives? I want to take them out, but editors and writers keep putting them in. I think we wouldn’t put commas in this expression: big bad wolf. Or little old lady. But I keep seeing it this way: big, bad wolf and little, old lady.

OK, so maybe I am still stinging from my edits being labeled “comma happy” by a client. I may be old-fashioned, but my comma style doesn’t bend to the whim of the latest fashion. Or maybe, if I wait, the old ways will come around again, like neon-colored clothing did.

First draft

Kurt Vonnegut told his writing classes at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop how to write a novel in eight words: “Get someone in trouble! Get them out! Man-in-the-Hole!”


That is just one of the gems in speechwriter and novelist Robert Lehrman’s post in Opinionator, The New York Times blog. In a previous life, Lehrman wrote some of the words that came out of Al Gore’s mouth. I read it in the paper edition of the Times, where serendipity rules. Although I’d quibble about the hyphenation of Man-in-the-Hole, I loved this riff on political speechwriting. (Speechwriting? One word, two — or hyphenated?) I especially liked his illustration of the necessity of writing in simple terms. “Luckily, English is a rich language,” he writes. And it’s true.

One word, two or hyphenated?

That’s the question we asked each other on the copy desk of The Dallas Morning News’ Trend section years ago. (I won’t specify how many years ago.)

We took a vote. A vote. I am ashamed to admit that now, especially after four years on the Opinion section of the same newspaper — I learned so much from knowledgeable staffers there.

However, now I have the same question as before: “One word, two or hyphenated?” Fortunately, thanks to another job in my past, I have an accumulation of grammar books.

Probably my favorite grammar book is Patricia O’Conner’s Woe is I. Here’s what she has to say about multiple words before a noun: “Use a hyphen when either of the two words in the description wouldn’t make very much sense by itself.”

That sounded kind of tentative, so I continued to another book on the shelf: Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lay, by Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis. “Most often, hyphens join two or more words that, taken together, form an adjective,” the Richards write.

Enough with the cutesy grammarians — I turned next to Theodore Bernstein’s Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage. “Compounds consisting of an adverb and an adjective preceding a noun are usually hyphened [yes, hyphened] if there is even a remote chance that the adverb could be misread to be a modifier of the noun.” Bernstein goes on to specify that adverbs ending in -ly are not hyphenated because it is clear that they are adverbs.

Bernstein’s book was published in 1977, so let’s consult something more modern. Working with Words by Brian Brooks, James Pinson and Jean Gaddy Wilson list this as 11th in their “Twenty Common Errors” on the front inside flap: “Missing or misused hyphen(s) in a compound modifier.” First, they add “very” to the words that never deserve a hyphen. (In my humble opinion, “very” is seldom helpful.) “Use a hyphen between compound modifiers that precede the word they modify,” the book’s prescription, still doesn’t solve my problem.

Aha! You may have guessed that my motive is to prove that people hyphenate compound modifiers too often.So next I turned to the heaviest book I own, The Little, Brown Handbook, which, if I recall correctly, was donated to me by the English department at North Lake College. (Almost 1,000 pages. Woo hoo!) It reads:

A hyphen (or hyphens) correctly separate two or more words that are a single modifier before a noun. For example, well-known actor, out-of-date statistics, Spanish-speaking.
Don’t hyphenate when compound adjectives follow a noun.
Don’t hyphenate -ly words. (You’ve heard that before.)

None of this backs up my point (have I mentioned my point?) that words that modify each other should not be hyphenated before a noun.

Keys for Writers mentions that a superlative (-est) doesn’t get a comma, but it’s still not addressing my question.

I consulted the Bible of usage for journalists, the AP Stylebook. I can’t stress enough how helpful the online version is. The Stylebook says the fewer hyphens, the better.  “Use them only when not using them would cause confusion,” it says. But then, it elaborates by specifying that a compound modifier, two or more words that express a single concept, is usually hyphenated, unless it is one of the exceptions we’ve already named.
So, I submit:

high school student, not high-school student
real estate agent, not real-estate agent
red-haired girl
blue-green water

Editing on paper

I’ve already admitted that I print out stacks of paper and make old-fashioned red editing marks. (Well, usually red.) I love listening to my red pen traversing the page and drawing a bold curly deletion mark.

And then I translate my old-fashioned marks into edits on the screen.

You might say that this takes twice as long, and you would be (almost) right. I see several benefits. First of all, I spot errors more quickly on paper. It has nothing to do with avoiding technology and everything to do with efficiency.

Also, I can take these papers anywhere. (Well, almost anywhere.) It gives you a different perspective on public places if you need to take into consideration noise and available table space. The best place for noise is the public library — at least during the day. Drawbacks include that you can’t sip anything, at least at our library. Where you can sip, it is often noisy. I like wifi because I haven’t converted to a smartphone yet — this is a function of finances, not desire. Wifi enables me to keep up with my email on my trusty iPod Touch, which fits easily into my purse.

The translation process gives me another chance to spot errors, although I don’t attempt to read the document again. And it doesn’t really take that long unless the material is very messy.

I wonder what other people do. Fill me in.