Direct Address

A large senior health center in my neighborhood recently hoisted over its main entrance a banner that reads: Thank you team, for fulfilling our mission. Many of us, unfortunately, were first taught to punctuate by following our breath: put a comma where you breathe, we were told earnestly and often. This is excellent advice at the higher reaches of rhetorical design, but not so good for organizing an ordinary sentence according to a handful of basic rules meant to get the job done easily and accurately. It is also, most likely, what accounts for the incorrect punctuation proudly displayed here.

The construction at issue is called direct address, and there is a very simple and straightforward and invincible rule that pertains to it: nouns in direct address are set off by commas. The sentence on the banner contains two nouns, team and mission, and it is the team, not the mission, that the writer behind the banner is speaking directly to.  Applying the rule, we have the quick and easy and accurate correction: Thank you, team, for fulfilling our mission.

Now the rule as I have stated it assumes we know that an English sentence never begins with a comma, and that a period never follows a comma. So if, in a somewhat ham-handed effort to capture the addressee’s attention hard and fast, the sentence had begun with the word team, then using only one comma, the first of the required pair, would have still accorded with the rule: Team, thank you for fulfilling our mission. Or had team appeared at the end of the sentence (a better because more natural arrangement), only the latter of the pair of commas would have been in order: Thank you for fulfilling our mission, team.

In fact, where the writer did place the term of direct address—neither in first position nor last, but somewhere amidst the clause—is the arrangement best suited to the occasion. This kind of design is called a postpositive construction, postpositive meaning in its derivation nothing more recondite than placed after, that is, placed somewhere after the first position of a clause. And in a postpositive construction, the punctuation rule is applied unconditionally: nouns in direct address are set off by commas.

Beyond its workaday application, attending to this rule about punctuating nouns in direct address can keep our attention on the emotional effects our sentences provoke, something conscientious writers are always aware of. More sensitive now to where such a noun is placed, you can almost feel the syrupy and mawkish tone when the noun is in the first position: Team, thank you for fulfilling our mission. This arrangement often appears in sales letters and business correspondence, and the effect is almost always a false, even cloying, chumminess. That effect is erased when the word moves to the final position, but what does arise there is an earnestness inappropriate to the circumstance, something more akin to a barker hustling a crowd: Thank you for fulfilling our mission, team!

Punctuation, then, has a material effect on both the accuracy and impression of our sentences. Rules can be broken, of course, but broken knowingly and to an identifiable purpose otherwise unachievable. That standard is difficult to meet in everyday sentences like the one we have been considering here.



One of the good, reliable rules of English punctuation is that no comma is required after a main clause when a subordinate clause follows. So, for example, I’m going to go biking this weekend if it doesn’t rain. Clauses are made subordinate when they begin with a subordinating conjunction (when, since, if, after, although, because are some of the more common ones), and so in this example, there is no comma after weekend. If for stylistic reasons, however, we invert the order of the two clauses, a comma after the now initial subordinate clause would be required: If it doesn’t rain, I’m going to go biking this weekend.

That’s the rule. But a rule is a rule, not a diktat. What, for example, does this unsuspecting sentence mean: I didn’t call him because it was late. Is the fact that it was late the reason I didn’t call him, or is it precisely not the reason I didn’t call him? Do I mean to say because it was late, I didn’t call him, or something like I didn’t call him because it was late; I didn’t call him because I didn’t want to talk to him. The subordinating conjunction because will often produce this ambiguity when the main clause is negative, and it is good practice to redesign such sentences to preclude the possibility of misunderstanding.

The revision just given is one way to revise such a statement: begin the sentence with the because-clause and follow it with a comma. This takes care of the problem because the negative (the not in the contraction didn’t) is now contained within its own clause; we can’t feel its force if we haven’t come in contact with it yet as we read. But now we run into another problem. Because it was late, I didn’t call him sounds a little pretentious, a bit overly proper or exact. We would need to see the larger context in which the sentence appears to be sure, but we can revise out that apparent problem of diction by substituting since, another subordinating conjunction of cause, for the word because: Since it was late, I didn’t call him. We’re now closer to our natural voice, and pending any reason for a more formal structure, that should be our choice.

One further caution is in order, though. It is not uncommon to see an initial main clause conclude with a comma, even when positive and followed by a because-clause. Take, for example, this sentence: I’m going to go biking this weekend, because if I don’t take advantage of this last beautiful weekend of the year, I’ll be sorry all winter long. The comma after weekend serves a rhetorical, not a logical, purpose. The 14 words after the main clause create too large an element to hang unsupported, and the comma is necessary to section off the element for the reader’s easier comprehension.

This difference between rhetorical and logical punctuation often accounts for our frustration in deciding whether there should or should not be a comma somewhere. The best advice is to decide first on logical grounds, and then override that decision if the situation compels and the meaning is not impaired. Truth first is the rule. Which is why rules are merely rules and not authoritarian decrees.


Closely Reading Santayana

I happen to admire the thought and language of George Santayana, an American philosopher of Spanish background who died in 1952. Santayana is probably best known for his novel, The Last Puritan, a best-selling book in 1936 which was eventually nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The protagonist of the story is Oliver Alden, and in last paragraph of the preface to the novel, Santayana says this:

It is thought sad to come to an end early, or to come to an end at all; but such sadness is only the foiled sympathy of body with body, when motion ceases, and the flesh that was warm and living has grown stiff and cold. To the spirit, on the contrary, it is glorious to have finished all there was to do. It would be distressing rather to be tossed about perpetually from impulse to impulse, where nothing definite could ever be accomplished, nothing achieved. What was sad about Oliver was not that he died young or was stopped by accident, but that he stopped himself, not trusting his inspiration: so that he knew ‘the pity, not the joy, of love,’ the severity of intellect and not its glory.

This kind of language carries deep ideas gracefully to heights we are not accustomed to every day, and it is all the more remarkable to learn that the popularity of the Santayana’s novel in the United States was as a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection. These four sentences are laden with phrases we have to attend closely to and search the meaning of more than once: foiled sympathy, impulse to impulse, and perhaps most striking of all, the severity of intellect and not its glory. How are we to best approach such a passage and can we justify for ourselves the effort involved?

To those already convinced of the value of literature and the liberal arts, that second question—can we justify the effort—nears outright apostasy. The liberal arts (so called from the Latin liber meaning free) have to do with the life of the mind (the intellect which Santayana refers to here); they are the concern of those who wish to be free from presumption and prejudgment, and who admire others who are. Far from being a substitute for the common world we know and live, the study of language and literature reminds us that the value of what we do and how we act in the world can be determined only by introspection and insight. Language is how we think; it is both the means and the product of our reasoning, and it requires material to operate, the raw material of our own lived experiences and the vicarious imaginings of literature. The time we spend pondering language and the ideas it bears is a kind of fermentation, the yield of which can guide how we will choose to act in the world.

But how can we look closely and consideringly at a passage like this which may appear so off-putting at first? It is important to remember that what we are reading is the effect of a perception, the afterimage of something Santayana saw and felt and interpreted into the sentences we are trying to understand. One way, then, to his original vision is by attending to the structure of his statements and asking what other choices he might have had. And the difference between the structure he did choose and the structure he could have otherwise chosen can open our eyes to his original perception.

Take, for example, the first sentence of Santayana’s paragraph above. Why, we may ask, a semicolon before but, and not the more usual comma? That question leads us to observe that there are fully four more clauses in the sentence after the conjunction, and the meaning they carry together would have more likely drained off without effect had the semicolon not brought us to a pause to prepare ourselves for the unexpected images that follow; the semicolon, that is, stands the sentence up into a strong posture, and gives time for the previous idea to take hold. But why not then simply use however, a conjunction that requires a semicolon? That question, in turn, would bring us to consider the diction of the sentence: however would heighten the style inappropriately, bringing in an academic sophistication that would work against the power of the very concrete images of body and flesh, and the common conditions of warm and cold and living and stiff. That loftiness would run the risk of weakening these actualities.

And we could continue such close reading as the passage proceeds. Spirit and glorious in the second sentence contrast with thought and sadness in the first sentence. The adverb rather in the third sentence presents an alternative to what in the first sentence is said to be commonly thought sad; this, in turn, sets us up for the clarification in the fourth sentence of what the author says is truly sad in the early death of Oliver. And we could note there, as well, the force of the colon: to announce and pronounce in an isolated grammatical statement what amounts to the tragedy of the young protagonist.

A contemporary of Santayana’s, John Erskine, noted (in The North American Review, June 1936) that in his novel, “Mr. Santayana writes as he has always written, with a brilliance born not of rhetoric but of a faithful matching of speech to the perceptions of an exquisite mind. The style is as good as it has always been; heaven knows how it could be better.” In our own way of slow and careful reading, we can turn ourselves in the direction of the same light that brightened Santayana’s mind. We try, in our fashion, to match the writer’s original steady attention with our own close consideration, first of structure and then of the thoughts which that structure reveals. Santayana’s was a mind of broad sympathy in possession and control of large ideas, ideas which we, in our own way, can take up to consider when we are able to understand them clearly through the grammatical form in which they have been brought before us.


For a While or For Awhile?

Here is a simple sentence with a deceptively simple mistake: I spoke to her yesterday for awhile. The problem is common enough that it often passes unnoticed, but something is stirring in the concluding prepositional phrase. There is the old adage that writing is rewriting. Let’s apply the adage.

A phrase, we remember, is a group of words without a subject and verb, and we generally name a phrase by the kind of word with which it begins: a prepositional phrase, then, is a group of words without a subject and verb that begins with a preposition—just what we have in the phrase for awhile. The preposition, though, brings its own demands into its construction, chiefly that it must have an object of some sort, generally a noun or pronoun, to which it points and which brings the phrase to a close. Earlier in the sentence we find the prepositional phrase to her, to being the preposition and her, a pronoun, its object. Prepositions show the affiliation or connection between objects across a sentence, so here the preposition to intends to connect the word her with I, the subject of spoke.

But what is the object of the preposition for in the phrase for awhile? Or to ask the same question another way, what’s an awhile? The object of a preposition must be a substantive, something, whether concrete or abstract, that can be named. No such thing as an awhile exists, so herein lies the heart of the problem: a prepositional phrase that has no object. A while, however, is something that does exist. A while is a short period of time, and as a noun, it can stand as the object of a preposition. We have, then, the answer to our problem: the phrase for awhile should be corrected to for a while. The preposition for now has a proper object and all’s fine in the world.

The problem here is caused by the fact that the word awhile does indeed exist in English. Awhile is an adverb that means for a while, so when we write for awhile, we are overlapping the same meaning. We really have, then, two choices: either I spoke to her yesterday for a while or I spoke to her yesterday awhile. Grammatically, both are acceptable, but the first, I would judge, is the preferable for reasons of euphony: the five syllables of yesterday awhile seem to bump and jostle one another roughly; they’re a mouthful, and they can present themselves a little more elegantly with another syllable in the grouping: yesterday for a while.

The point to make, then, is that we are served well when we look at our revision work in two parts: form and syntax. Form means identifying what we are analyzing as a word, phrase, or clause; syntax means finding the part of speech that form is acting as. The prepositional phrase for a while is as a phrase an adverb, so that’s one choice. But awhile is as a word an adverb meaning the same thing. That’s another choice. And as my grandmother with her box of chocolates used to tell me when I was a boy: just one at a time.


Commas: To Use or Not To Use

A number of months ago, in a post called Apposition, I took up the question whether commas would be necessary in a sentence like this: My brother, George, is tall. Recently, I was talking with someone who tutors middle school students, and the materials he is compelled to use on the same topic were downright wrong. Instead of explaining the difference between using and not using commas, they simply instructed students always to place such amplifying words in commas. The problem, however, is more subtle than that. Understanding it will take us uphill for a time, but not up a sheer precipice.

First, it is important to remember that questions of punctuation can be matters of style or matters of logic. If you think, for example, that you would not have put a comma after the word first in the previous sentence here, that would be a stylistic matter; what is being said would not materially change, with or without that comma. If, however, you do or do not place commas in the sentence My brother, George, is tall, you change the implication of what is being said. Implication, or suggestion, is decidedly within the bailiwick of logic, and it can be difficult to argue with a bailiff.

Commas separate; that is their function, job, and duty. We separate what doesn’t belong together, or what might unduly influence something else by too close an association. In English grammar, a word or phrase or clause standing right next to another implies some connection between the two; the principle is called proximity, and that’s how sentences and paragraphs are constructed into comprehensible statements: ideally, we strive in prose to compose lines of departure, one element unfolding from the previous across a sentence until we have written out a path to an idea. There can be all kinds of twists and turns, of course, but there must be a discernible through line that makes the statement intelligible.

So if I placed commas around the name George in the sentence at hand, I would be separating that name from the noun brother immediately next to it: I would then have dissociated it, taken away its strength to define the word it stands next to, and would have consequently so weakened it in pulling it away from its brother that all it could do now would be to describe that person, not distinguish him from a number of others. Words that stand next to each other define each other; words that are isolated by commas merely describe. The former is called restrictive apposition; the latter is nonrestrictive apposition.

We might choose to describe something merely as a courtesy to our readers, or to set things up for an idea yet to appear in the paragraph. But when we define, we feel under some obligation to keep ideas clear, to preclude a misunderstanding. So if the sentence were written without commas, My brother George is tall, I am intending to define, not describe by naming, the particular brother of mine who is tall. And that, of course, would be to imply that I have more than one brother; why otherwise would I take the trouble to be so clear when no confusion could reasonably arise?

Whether or not we use commas in a sentence like this (and in countless similar sentences) is determined by the truth of the circumstances we are writing about. To explicate all those standing circumstances at every turn would overrun our readers with secondary and tertiary detail trailing off into the irrelevant, but we can imply the relevant background with what resources the grammar of English allows us. Correctly placing commas is one such resource, and in this way we can take readers through the landscape of our thoughts, not stopping to point out every rock formation, but framing their view sufficiently so that they can clearly put things into perspective.

Intelligibility is a matter of logic; things have to make a certain sense or we’re merely reading through the mistiness of someone’s inchoate thoughts. And language, thankfully, does not require that we possess as readers any special skill of divination or mind reading. Knowing the craft of writing, both its stable rules and changing conventions, will answer our rightful questions as we draft and revise and read.