comma before quotation

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comma before quotation

Post by pokoma » Wed Nov 20, 2013 8:56 pm

Standard sentence order is subject verb object (SVO), e.g., "He said nothing." No comma between the verb and the object, right? So what is the basis for putting a comma before a quotation that functions as the (direct) object? "He said, 'Nothing.'" How about a movement to eliminate it in the way logical editors have done with the taboos of split infinitive and ending a sentence with a preposition?
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Re: comma before quotation

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Nov 20, 2013 9:46 pm

I agree that there's no logical need for the comma in the situation you describe. In my view, its function there is to mark a slight pause that sets off the quotation from the phrase that introduces it. Compare:

1) He said nothing.

2) He said, "Nothing".

If you paused slightly before the reported speech in 2), you'll have noticed that the pause coincided with the comma.

However, my sense is that today this convention is less observed than when I was a child several decades ago. This puts it in line with the general trend towards a lesser degree of formality, and a greater degree of idiosyncrasy of expression, in contemporary written English.
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Re: comma before quotation

Post by Wizard of Oz » Thu Nov 21, 2013 9:54 am

.. Pam do as you like but never forget that in written communication you have to be confident that all readers will take your meaning, just as you desired .. no second chances to be clearly understood .. leave it out and nobody will say anything but run the risk of being ambiguous .. your choice .. just as I make mine with my aptly named horizontal colon .. *smile* ..

WoZ, who likes commas
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Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: comma before quotation

Post by pokoma » Sun Dec 01, 2013 4:10 am

OK, I won't wage a campaign. Yet. It seems to me the old rule on using a comma to show a pause or short breath was that it should be seldom. Were I still teaching in college, I would point out--yet another--exception to a rule of English. A persistent common error is thinking anything before an opening quotation mark should have a comma: "My Uncle, 'Spud' was born in Idaho, so no one ever called him by his real name, Woodruff." "A former slave-trafficker wrote, 'Amazing Grace' after he realized how wrong slavery was."
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Re: comma before quotation

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sun Dec 01, 2013 5:08 am

pokoma wrote:A persistent common error is thinking anything before an opening quotation mark should have a comma
This must be a different campaign. ;-)

Both of the following are standard usage:

1) "My uncle, 'Spud', was born in Idaho.

2) "My uncle 'Spud' was born in Idaho.

All things being equal, of these two variants I prefer 1), because the quote marks indicating that 'Spud' is a nickname are given extra emphasis by the commas, which also mark a pair of pauses that would occur naturally in speech at that point. (If the narrator has more than one uncle, 2) is preferable; 1) implies the narrator has just one uncle.)

To digress a little: as soon as the fact of the nickname has been established in a narrative, it is not necessary to keep drawing attention to it. For instance:
I saw movement in the shadow of the wall ahead. A stocky man in dungarees was slouching against the corner, pulling on a cigarette as vigorously as if he was about to be dragged before a firing squad. I tugged the back of Pam's sleeve. The next moment we were both pressing ourselves against a parked potato van.

"Who's that?" she whispered hoarsely.

"That's my uncle Spud. He's up to something, and I don't like the look of it".
While we're focusing on these minor details, uncle in "my uncle, 'Spud'" does not need an initial capital, because when the word is preceded by a possessive pronoun it is a generic descriptor, rather than being part of a proper name, or a term of address. (Contrast this with "Look! There's Uncle Jack!" or "Hello, Uncle Jack!")
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Re: comma before quotation

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Sun Dec 01, 2013 4:50 pm

pokoma wrote:. . . a quotation . . . functions as the (direct) object. . . .
could perhaps be construed as a begging of the question.

We've had several exchanges in the past over what exactly constitutes a direct object, and whether it should be conceded that there exist both syntactic DOs and semantic DOs, two non-identical sets. And then 'functions as a direct object' is ill-defined.
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Re: comma before quotation

Post by JerrySmile » Sat Dec 14, 2013 3:24 am

Erik_Kowal wrote:I agree that there's no logical need for the comma in the situation you describe. In my view, its function there is to mark a slight pause that sets off the quotation from the phrase that introduces it. Compare:

1) He said nothing.

2) He said, "Nothing".

If you paused slightly before the reported speech in 2), you'll have noticed that the pause coincided with the comma.
Indeed, the passing to 'nothing' is much faster, direct, in the first.

In 2, that pause describes a context switching from description to quotation.
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Re: comma before quotation

Post by pokoma » Fri Jan 03, 2014 4:04 am

Erik: 2) "My uncle 'Spud' was born in Idaho...."
= lowercase title after a possessive pronoun

Sorry it's taken me so long to reply. That rule just bothered me. I checked several grammar books but found it only in Chicago Manual of Style, which doesn't specify the type of pronoun. I don't see the purpose. If a relative is known by a title with the name, how does it become generic? "If Grandma Mary sees a bug, she freaks, but if Grandma Eliza sees one, she picks it up." "While my Grandma Mary freaks at the sight of a bug, my Grandma Eliza will pick it up."
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Re: comma before quotation

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Fri Jan 03, 2014 7:16 am

By analogy with: "While my daughter Mary freaks at the sight of a bug, my daughter Eliza will pick it up." The (defining) appositives here are better not set off by commas. Contrast "While my aunt, Mary, freaks at the sight of a bug, my daughter, Eliza, will pick it up." [implication: only one of each to be considered; appositives merely give parallel appellations rather than define]

However, your titular version works too.

With regard to your view on the actual structure of a quote, Pam, analysis and debate is still going on in attempts to pin down the nature of the beast. I have heard the opinion that quotations (as opposed to say words marked as non-standard in context by the use of scare quotes) should all be regarded and treated as parenthetical material, separate from the grammatical structure of the framing sentence, except that they fill a syntactic DO role.

Here is a treatment worth having a look at: 'Structural and Semantic Features of Quotation in English Media' at http://www.mcser.org/journal/index.php/ ... d/772/803‎

And here is a discussion about changing 'rules' of construction and punctuation when using quote structures. Though I think the pause-signalling function of a comma is worth retaining for judicious, not slavish, use. The colon is a good choice on some occasions, too.
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Re: comma before quotation

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Fri Jan 03, 2014 7:34 am

@Jerry

I often find myself plumping for zero punctuation rather than the traditional comma or colon before a quote. For instance, I wouldn't want any pause-signaller in:

The terrified child screamed "Help me!" from the sinking boat.

I'd probably use

He said, "Nothing."

in most cases, but probably not here:

_ Did Jim say "Knotting"?

_ No, he said "Nothing."
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Re: comma before quotation

Post by pokoma » Fri Jan 03, 2014 9:21 pm

Thanks for the discussion.
: )
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End of topic.
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