Monday, August 20, 2012

Commas before quotes

Usually, of course, when you hook a quote to a sentence, there's a comma in between, like:

He opened his eyes and said, "Not you again."

What do you do, however, when the quote is just a piece of the quote, and the sentence isn't a nice neat quote tag (he said)?

This is a sentence I adapted (just the details changed-- same construction and punctuation) from the newspaper we have often relied on for perfect copy editing (that one with all the news that fits, I mean, that is fit). If it weren't in The Newspaper, I'd probably just sniff and feel superior. But... but... surely the Gray Lady's copy editor can't be wrong????

Here 'tis:

She once termed this, “the ultimate trend in technology.”

 Your thoughts on that comma? I would never use it. The quote isn't the full quote, and the tag is really a substitute for whatever identifying clause came in the actual quote. The quote itself is really just the appositive (explanation) for the pronoun 'this," "this" being the object of the verb "termed".

I wouldn't use a comma there, but let's try a non-quote substitute. (Clearly, I'm still assuming if the NYTimes -- oops, told ya-- copy editor puts a comma there, it was done judiciously.)

She once called Paul the last honest man.

Hmm. No, I wouldn't put a comma there. 

Ruling from you all? And rationale?



Iola said...

Comes back to my first rule of writing. If it looks wrong, despite the rule, change the entire sentence so it looks right. So:

She once described this as “the ultimate trend in technology.”

Ta-dah! No comma needed.

Hmmm. Single or double quote marks? Since we gave up using single quote marks for thought, I'm inclined to see them as cleaner. So:

She once described this as 'the ultimate trend in technology'.

Kristen Stieffel said...

Iola, she said the words aloud, so they are a quotation and therefore require double quotation marks.

In cases like this, the quotation functions as the object of the sentence (yes, I diagrammed it, albeit only in my head). In The Copyeditor's Handbook, Amy Einsohn puts it this way:

"Do not use a comma before a quotation that is the direct object of a verb."

As you may have already guessed, Einsohn is not as widely read in the newspaper business as she should be.

tinlizzie82 said...

Nope, no comma. The quote is a part of the larger structure of the sentence, and really, the quotation marks are just there to indicate that the phrase is attributed to her.

tinlizzie82 said...

While we are on commas, I have another question about parenthetical elements that follow conjunctions. I have recently been reading, and hoping they were unedited, a few preview chapters of a soon to be released book. Among the many "mistakes" I have found is a consistent use of a comma after a conjunction in order to set off a parenthetical phrase or element. For example:

"I understand your personal enthusiasm to hit code red with this, but, somehow, these resources need to be accounted for."

If I was punctuating this sentence, the part in question would read:

"...with this, but somehow, these ..."

I wouldn't usually notice something so nitpicky, but it is consistent throughout, so I am forced to wonder whether this could be a matter of style for the publisher, or is it just plain, old bad editing.

While obsessing about this, I also came up with two more related questions. First, if the conjunction is connecting phrases that are actually elements of a list, does the same rule apply, since in this case, there would not be a comma in front of the conjunction? Here is an example:

The elaborate jewels were an indicator of her wealth and, more importantly, her standing in society.

Because "her wealth" and "her standing in society" are items in a list, "and" does not require a comma, and therefore, "more importantly" gets its own pair. (Yes, I know that it should probably be "more important" since it is an adjectival phrase, but that sounds weird to me - so there!)

Second, if the writer decides to omit the comma before the conjunction between two short, equal independent clauses, what happens if they then add a parenthetical phrase between the clauses? I, personally, would put the comma back in front of the conjunction and then after the parenthetical in the interest of not having a comma follow the conjunction. Yes?

I know these are silly, minor details, but as someone who has once been rewarded the "most creative use of a comma" award by a high school English teacher (back in the mists of time), I spend far too much time worrying about such things, so I hope you will answer.

Adrian said...

My first instinct would be to not use a comma, because it feels like the quotation is the direct object of the verb, but it could also be considered an appositive for this, and appositives are often set off from the noun or pronoun they modify with commas.

She chased Ushi, my brother-in-law's puppy.

I could see a colon before the quotation.

She once termed this: “the ultimate trend in technology.”

A lot of our punctuation rules (especially around quotations) are artifacts of ancient typesetting processes more than grammatical reasoning. In many cases, you could argue that the period should be outside the closing quotation mark, as it indicates the end of the entire sentence and not part of the quotation.

She once termed this “the ultimate trend in technology”.

I once read an explanation that lines of moveable type that ended like this were more fragile than ones that put the period inside the quotation marks.

Alicia said...

We agree then. :) I think I'll use that sentence and you-all's explanations in a sentence class I'm teaching. Will give credit!

TinL, I'll tackle the first-- maybe the others can weigh in on the others?
"I understand your personal enthusiasm to hit code red with this, but, somehow, these resources need to be accounted for."

You know, I think your version (comma after but not before "somehow") can work too if "but somehow" is a unit (which I think you could argue).
I would also say you could go without commas entirely:
"I understand your personal enthusiasm to hit code red with this, but somehow these resources need to be accounted for."

I think actually, in reading that aloud, I realized that "but somehow" could mean two different things. Somehow these resources need to be accounted for-- Somehow modifies "accounted for-"
These resources need to be accounted for somehow. I'd say that's what "no comma" or comma before somehow would mean (before and not after would be wrong, I think).

If "somehow" actually modifies the whole clause, then your version or both commas would be best, I think.
(What do I mean? Hmm. I can just see the boss throwing up his hands-- "but, somehow, somewhere, someone...")

What do you think? Great question.

tinlizzie82 said...

Thanks for your answer. You know, after reading it I actually think that the only comma should be before the "and" because if you break down the two clauses into separate sentences, the second one would read, "Somehow these resources need to be accounted for." Not a great sentence, but i wouldn't put a comma after "somehow."

I think I may have learned the whole include the nonessential phrase in with the conjunction thing more as a way of simplifying a sentence and avoiding an excess of commas. I wish I hadn't been too lazy to find the more egregious example from the excerpts where technically correct comma usage left you with a sentence that started "Word, word, word, ..." It was rather amusing to look at even if it was probably technically correct.

Unknown said...

The comma seems unnecessary to me because the quotation marks separate the quote from the rest of the sentence.

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

Why not leave the quotes out entirely? Saying that the person in question once described something a certain way obviates the need for the quotes at all. It makes it clear that the person expressed this idea, if not necessarily this exact quote. Doesn't it?

She once described this as the ultimate trend in technology.