1. zaffy
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    zaffy Contributing Member

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    Grammar highlighting versus me.

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by zaffy, Apr 29, 2010.

    This is how I would like to write my sentence.
    Every step had been a struggle for Albert, but at last he and his constant companion were level with the crossroads.

    Microsoft Word is insisting I put a comma after 'last', as below.

    Every step had been a struggle for Albert, but at last, he and his companion were level with the crossroads.

    However Microsoft Word does not insist on a comma after Albert.

    Is Microsoft Word going by a certain rule? If so, I shall follow it even though I think my original comma placement reads better.
     
  2. Halcyon
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    Halcyon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hmmm

    I would actually probably put the comma after "but" and again after "last".

    Every step had been a struggle for Albert but, at last, he and his companion were level with the crossroads.

    But, who knows? :)
     
  3. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    I'd agree with you, Halcyon. Putting the "at last" in parenthesis seems most sensible to me.
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The comma after Albert belongs there, because it precedes the conjunction joining two independent clauses to formn a compound sentence.

    The comma Microsoft is recommending separates the prepositional phrase at last from the body of the sentence he and his companion were level with the crossroads which follows.
     
  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    but does not take a comma after it, normally... only before it...

    and parentheses wouldn't be a good choice for 'at last'... though, if you want to emphasize it, you could enclose it in em dashes...

    the sentence isn't a very good one in any case, imo... for one thing, 'level with' implies they were climbing or descending and if they're not, then 'level' makes no sense... and the 'constant companion' bit seems somewhat extraneous...
     
  6. marina
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    marina Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think you need a comma after Albert. Also, technically, I think a comma after 'last' is correct but you could also get away with omitting it just so there's not too much stop-and-go when reading that line.

    Overall, though, always good to follow maia & cog on this.
     
  7. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    Aside from all this (I think the comma question was well answered) I just want to point out that Microsoft Word grammar checks are often wrong. It takes a human eye and an understanding of the rules of grammar to correct your work. Although Microsoft can catch things you might have missed, it also sometimes flags things as wrong that were right, and fails to flag things that are wrong. Microsoft doesn't replace careful editing.

    Charlie
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Note that the above comment applies to ALL automated grammar checking. Language is too complex to analyze unambiguously, especially as word meanings and usages are constantly changing.

    It is not a Microsoft problem, it's inherent to language theory and context-sensitive grammars.
     
  9. rory
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    rory Contributing Member

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    I know very little about the rules of grammar, but ignore any kind of grammer checks in word processing programs (they are always yelling at me for writing "fragments"). I trust my ear and write what sounds right. The beauty of writing is that it's never finished and can always be changed.
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I don't ignore grammar check indicators. I look at them to see if I have overlooked something, even though most of the time I end up disregarding the advice.

    I don't depend completely on spellcheck advice, either. Many of the hits are names, and many actual spelling errors are missed because they result in other words. But I still run the check and look at the suggestions.

    If you have a tool, use it, but don't assume the tool is always right -- or always wrong.
     
  11. KP Williams
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    KP Williams Contributing Member

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    Have you never heard people say "level with me?" As in, tell me the truth? Maybe it's my area, but I hear that all the time.

    That wouldn't make sense with the TC's sentence. But no worries, because from what I can tell, she actually is talking about elevation.
     
  12. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I read that to mean parenthetic commas, which would be fine.

    Legitimate place for for fragments in creative writing. Definitely non-standard English, though. Sometimes hard on the reader. Avoid unless good reason.
     
  13. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The key is to know when the grammar is formally incorrect, and why. You need to understand that before you can make an informed decision whether to leave it as is or fix it.

    Sentence fragments do have a legitimate purpose in fiction. Most often they are used for emphasis and impact. In order for a fragment to be effective, though, it should be an uncommon occurrence.
     
  14. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Absolutely, especially with something as much in the reader's face as fragments.
    I can think of a couple of cases where sustained use of fragments has worked. The opening of Dicken's "Bleak House" is almost entirely fragments, and one of the two narratorial voices in Jon McGregor's "If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things" is entirely in fragments. But that didn't happen because the writers just "used their ears", it happened because two incredibly skillful writers put a lot of knowledge and effort into achieving the near-impossible task of making such a thing work.
     
  15. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have to agree with Microsoft on this one.
    Either:
    Every step had been a struggle for Albert, but at last, he and his constant companion were level with the crossroads.
    or:
    Every step had been a struggle for Albert but at last, he and his constant companion were level with the crossroads.

    But I would be more likely to write something like:
    Although every step was a struggle for Albert, he and his companion finally reached the crossroads.

    I don't understand what you mean by 'level' at all...
     
  16. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    That looks really odd to me. I would be happier with "Every step had been a struggle for Albert, but, at last, he and his constant companion were level with the crossroads." That sets "at last" off as a parenthetic clause. I note that Microsoft is equally happy with this version.
     
  17. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, slightly different parses of the word sequence do lead to variations in punctuation.

    In fact, that's why you should make an effort to learn formal grammar. Changing the punctuation changes the parse tree, which in turn changes the semantics. The differences in interpretation my be subtle, or they may be profound.

    Someone recently posted an image that illustrates a profound difference in interpretation:

    Let's go eat, Grandma!
    vs.
    Let's go eat Grandma!
     
  18. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    Claire Cook discusses, at some length, how to punctuate such a sentence in her excellent book Line by Line. She points out that “few style and usage manuals offer guidance here...practice differs even among knowledgeable writers.”

    The two ways such a sentence would usually be punctuated are:

    1. Every step had been a struggle for Albert, but at last, he and his constant companion were level with the crossroads (madhoca’s way).

    2. Every step had been a struggle for Albert, but, at last, he and his constant companion were level with the crossroads (digitig’s way).

    In brief (see below), both ways are considered acceptable. But let’s analyse what is happening:

    1. Comma before the “but.” Most writers would use a comma before the word “but”—indeed most style manuals insist on the comma in such a sentence. There is nothing controversial about such usage. You are using the comma to join two complete sentences linked by a conjunction. Simple...

    2. Comma after the word “last.” Again, nothing controversial here. Introductory clauses are usually set off by a comma. If writing it as a separate sentence, many would write, “At last, he and his constant companion...”

    3. Then we get to the problem. Is a comma needed after the “but” or is it unnecessary? Cook describes the use of a comma after the conjunction as “not so much optional as controversial.”

    Comma after the “but”?

    Strunk & White’s book says to punctuate such a sentence as per madhoca’s suggestion—that is, to omit the comma. Ditto the Chicago Manual of Style (13 ed.)

    In the Penguin Guide to Punctuation, however, professor Trask says that such a sentence does need the comma after the conjunction. That said, his reason for saying this is probably that he was trying to keep things simple for his readers (I say this because he has a handy little rule of thumb to help his readers to spot if a sentence has been correctly punctuated. His rule of thumb is messed up if he permits the omission of the comma).

    The King’s English, by the Fowlers, discusses such usage, too. They say to omit the comma (as per madhoca’s suggestion), even though they say that logically it should be there (as per digitig’s suggestion).

    The New Yorker uses both ways, depending on the sentence.
     
  19. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Strunk & White is, of course, probably more controversial than that pesky comma: http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497
    My sort of newspaper :)
     
  20. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    I read the article and googled up some other criticism. Certainly, there's justified criticism of Strunk & White. But the Elements of Style also contains some valuable advice, gems of wisdom mixed in with the gaffes and errors. I'd like to see an edition of "Elements of Style" stripped of errors and retaining the best parts, perhaps even noting the earlier errors and outlining the reasons for their removal and modification.

    I consider the work as neither the Infallible Word on writing by the greatest masters of writing as some of its adherents consider it, nor as the Detestable Abomination written by fools for fools as some of its detractors consider it. In this age, there seem to be many people who view all things as black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Few are willing to analyze a work and consider both its merits and its demerits. It seems that today, you have to be "for" something or "against" it, and apparently, that's the case with the Elements of Style. I saw some very harsh criticism of Elements of Style, and I've heard some lavish praise of the work. Few seem willing to take a more balanced view of the work (and many other things in life) which is my view in this case.

    I believe that readers should read it, and all other things that they read and hear and learn in life, with a critical, thinking mind. Take all that you read with a giant grain of salt, use your brain, and be flexible enough to consider many alternatives and that each viewpoint may have good and bad mixed. Then, as they say in the 12 step programs, take what you can use and leave the rest.

    Writing is an art form, of course, and art isn't created by a computer program or a machine designed for mathematical precision. There is no perfect guide for writing, any more than there is a perfect guide for painting portraits.

    Perhaps one of the wisest words I've read, which may apply here, came from the book Illusions by Richard Bach, on the last page of the book. The book contained quotes from another (fictitious) book, a Guide for Messiahs, a great Book of Truth that had all knowledge and could answer all things. The great book said: "Everything in this book, may be wrong."

    I think it's a good approach to take in all that we read, and hear, and even what we see. Never bow to the authority of some great, true-and-wise book. View everything with a critical, thinking mind. Everything you read on this forum, every word of the Elements of Style, every word of articles critical of Elements of Style... all of it may be wrong. When you weigh what you've read, and feel you've spent enough time on it... you decide where to put your comma. :)

    Charlie
     
  21. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    You're preaching to the choir here, brother! :D
     
  22. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    I know this post may be controversial, but I can’t help but feel that a prescriptive approach is the best approach when teaching kid’s how to write.

    If kid’s are told about all the exceptions to "the rules" and academic disagreements over the rules, surely they’ll just become confused?

    Is it not better to get them to learn a rigid set of rules first, and then, once they’ve grasped the rules, tell them about this exception and that exception?

    Or am I wrong?
     
  23. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    For teaching kids to write, I agree with you, although I think kids should be encouraged to think independently as well, and at least to be aware that exceptions exist.

    I wasn't introduced to Elements of Style until high school. Junior year, as I recall. By that time, I think I was ready for the sort of stuff we're talking about.

    (Interestingly, I read it around the same time I read Illusions by Richard Bach, which I quoted in relation to the discussion.)

    Charlie
     
  24. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    If they are to be taught rules, at least they should be rules that make sense!

    And sure, teach them that "your" and "you're" are not the same (and which is which -- not witch is witch). But by the time they're punctuating sentences like "Every step had been a struggle for Albert, but at last, he and his companion were level with the crossroads" then they're surely up to the stage when they can cope with things not being black-and-white. If you keep teaching them that English rules are black-and-white then you do them a disservice, because English is not like Esperanto: The rules didn't come first, with usage following the rules. Rather, the usage came first, and the linguists tried (with varying success) to work out what the rules were that governed the usage.

    If you don't introduce them to the ideas of stylistic variation and uncertain rules as soon as they can deal with them then they're likely to grow up into the sort of person who gets upset at perfectly valid language, and then heaven help anybody whose work they end up editing! That could be us!
     
  25. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Humour Whiffet, I believe that is the best way to teach any beginning writer.

    In any kind of teaching, it's best to start with an oversimplified view. of the subject. Once the fundamentals are clearly understood, you can g oback and say, "Remember when I told you X? Well, that's true most of the time, but now lets look at some alternatives."

    If you overwhelm a learner with all the intricacies, all you will accomplish is to leave hjim or her totally bewildered.

    This is really getting off topic, though. Perhaps a new thread is in order to discuss how to best teach grammar?
     

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