February 28, 2007

Comma interruptus

I'm currently providing advice to some colleagues on a manuscript, and 90% of the changes I'm suggesting are the elimination of commas that come in the middle of a clause between the subject and verb or between the verb and the object. In almost all cases, the commas separate parenthetical comments that would be more effective at the beginning of the sentence.  The following is an example I've drafted (not taken from the paper):

Version 1:

The defendant's lawyer, who later became a well-regarded judge at the circuit level as a result of the publicity from the case, argued vigorously, despite the emotional circumstantial evidence, that his client was innocent.

Version 2:

Despite the emotional circumstantial evidence, the defendant's laywer argued that his client was innocent. Using the case's publicity as a springboard, the lawyer later became elected as a circuit-court judge, enjoying a popular reputation.

Some humorists such as Douglas Adams made great use of parenthetical remarks, many of which in Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide series or Dirk Gently books were longer than the clause which they interrupted. But in most instances, parenthetical comments and apostrophes are interruptions of the flow. This lesson is probably the most important one I've learned from Joseph Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. And I'm still having to go through my own writing and edit out the, what do you call them again?, parenthetical remarks.

Why do we interrupt ourselves so in writing? I suspect it's the old temptation:  we've taken some effort to become accomplished at reading difficult prose, so we think it must be better.

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Posted in Writing and editing on February 28, 2007 8:44 AM |