Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Comma Sutra

We just got back from seeing The Social Network, and for a movie about the creation of a website, it was pretty darn good. I can hardly wait for the blockbuster thriller about Twitter.

Leafing lazily through my complimentary copy of Cineplex, as one does while waiting for the lights to go down, I came across an interview with renowned thespian Christopher Plummer, whose much-heralded performance as Prospero in this year's Stratford Festival production of The Tempest is coming to a multiplex near me for a special limited-engagement screening. (In other words, the theatre is not expecting enough interest to inspire them to commit to an unlimited engagement. It's Shakespeare, after all, not Marvel Comics).

At the end of the Q-and-A, Plummer is asked about his daughter, the actress Amanda Plummer, and he responds, in part:
She has her own kind of talent that has nothing to do with me or anybody else for that matter, she is her own woman.
A few fake-butter-smudged pages later, in the Holiday Preview section, my eyes alight on this passage in a synopsis of the upcoming remake of True Grit, starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon:
Yet neither Bridges nor Damon will carry this movie, that job falls to 14-year Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the bible-quoting teen leading the hunt for her father's killer.
Yes, that should, of course, be "14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld." Aside from that, however, these two quoted sentences have something in common: neither of them should be a single sentence--at least not in this form. In each instance, the writer has sent a comma to do a period's job (or a semi-colon's, or a conjunction's) and thus created an ungainly comma splice.

In the first example, for instance, we could say "because she is her own woman," and the conjunction would make it a grammatically complete sentence. But since we're dealing with a direct quote and we can't change the wording, the solution is obvious. "She is her own woman" should be its own sentence.

In the second excerpt, we can start the second clause with as, although a period or semi-colon would be more emphatic. Personally, I think an em-dash would be pretty sexy, too--God, how I love me a confidently discharged em-dash!--but I understand that not everyone shares my fetish, and some even regard the profligate use of em-dashes as a sign of loose morals.

Finally, it should be noted that there are a number of examples of exemplary writers using comma splices to great effect. This is one of those areas of literary connoisseurship where, perhaps unfairly, you're allowed to break the rule if you understand why you're breaking it and can justify your transgression with the result. "I came, I saw, I conquered" is poetry. The examples cited above are just vulgar.