To quibble means to cavil, to raise a trivial objection, and the thousand and one matters of grammar and style can often seem to worry over unimportant detail. But if writing or deleting a comma, or changing the verb from singular to plural will change the very picture we’re drawing for the reader, is that trivial?

Take, for example, this sentence: In the evening he would often go to a café, where all his good friends were. At first glance, it might appear to be a minor matter indeed whether a comma should follow the noun café, but what would be the difference between that sentence and this one: In the evening he would often go to the café where all his good friends were. Here there is no comma, and a definite article before the noun (the café) has replaced the original indefinite one (a café). We can’t just flee by saying it doesn’t matter, because it will turn out that the two sentences mean two different things.

Let’s understand first that both sentences comprise two clauses, he would go and all were. The number of clauses a sentence contains is always important to see first in revising, because a clause confers a thought, and how we associate one thought to another in a sentence determines the foundation of the statement. Next, let’s remember that commas cut, which means they separate the logical connection one thought has with another. When we read that first sentence and see a comma followed by another clause, that tells us that the writer saw two distinct situations: a person going to a café and good friends being there too. The fact that these two thoughts are together in one sentence might strongly imply that there is a cause-effect relation between the two (that he would often go because all his friends were there), it does not say that and the comma proves it. Had that been the writer’s intent, a semicolon would have connected the two clauses and the where deleted. Logic is one thing, suggestion another.

So what different situation does the second sentence depict? The article before the noun holds the key. The definite article, the, is a weakened form of the demonstrative that, so it carries with it the force of specifying the noun it introduces. To say that he would often go to the café and say no more would leave the reader wanting an answer to which café that was, not necessarily a name, but some information that particularizes the place. And that is exactly the information the next clause gives, information that defines the café (the one where all his good friends were) and so is not dissociated from it by a comma. We would thus understand that the writer saw not two situations but only one: someone going to a certain café. This version still implies that the reason he went to that café was the fact that his friends were there, but that implication is even weaker than in the first version.

We should say something, as well, about the word where in these sentences. As it is used here, the word where is taking on the function of a conjunctive adverb, an adverb (answering the question in what place) that also conjoins the two clauses. In the first sentence, where the comma forces us to separate the thoughts of the two clauses, the conjunctive adverb works to yet not let the two get too far from each other; it contracts the expansion inherent in the comma. In the second sentence, where the absence of a comma glues the two thoughts together, where clamps the vice tight to ensure the defining second clause sticks firmly and definingly to the noun café.

One person’s quibbling, then, can be another’s close reading. Subtlety is all in both reading and writing, because the tools of any art are only so good in representing the nuance and suggestion in which life seems to abound. And if the arts, then, aren’t meant to do more than allude, it’s all the more important to understand their elements enough not to miss what lies behind them.


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