comma between subject and verb: Immense wealth, and its expenditure, fill

onemorning85

Member
Learned Spanish (DO) first; know English (US) better
Today in my Word of the Day e-mail, Dictionary.com gave this example for the word "desideratum." Does anything in this sentence seem peculiar to you?

"Immense wealth, and its lavish expenditure, fill the great house with all that can please the eye, or tempt the taste. Here, appetite, not food, is the great desideratum."

I'll just explain what made me curious: in the first sentence "and its lavish expenditure" is set off by commas. Wouldn't that make it so that "Immense wealth fill the great house" is incorrect? Of course, the sentence sounds very awkward when an "s" is added to "fill."

If editing I would have removed the commas around "and its lavish expenditure" for safe measure, but what are your thoughts on it?
 
  • brian

    Senior Member
    AmE (New Orleans)
    Yes, oftentimes what's set between commas does not act as part of the subject (and therefore does not affect verb agreement), but in this case, (1) I think it is part of the subject, and (2) the reason for the commas is rhythmic/prosodic: when read aloud, it sounds better with pauses where the commas are.

    Unfortunately, punctuation rules are not 100% successful at simultaneously capturing both the syntax (grammar) and prosody of language.
     

    Prairiefire

    Senior Member
    US (Midwest) - English
    To what extent, if any, does WR recommend that English learners make use of style authorities when working on written English? I don't have it handy, but I am pretty darn sure the AP Stylebook--any journalistic style manual, in fact--would forbid the use of most of the commas in those two sentences. The three commas in the first sentence in particular would be struck out by any editor with whom I've ever worked.

    There is nothing that would confuse any reader with the following punctuation: "Immense wealth and its lavish expenditure fill the great house with all that can please the eye or tempt the taste. Here appetite, not food, is the great desideratum."
     

    JustKate

    Moderate Mod
    There are very few things that are actually "forbidden" when it comes to commas. I would consider the commas setting off "and its lavish expenditure" optional, but they certainly aren't incorrect. I do have an AP Stylebook right here (paper and electronic :)), and AP allows a writer to set off parenthetical expressions with commas if he wants to. I think those particular sentences are somewhat overburdened with commas, so if I were writing them, I'd find a way to jettison a comma or two - or three. The one that seems the least useful to me is the one before "and tempt the taste." I can't think of a reason to use one there, except the writer really likes commas.
     
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    Prairiefire

    Senior Member
    US (Midwest) - English
    Oh, dear, if few things are forbidden when it comes to commas, I've been taking far too much grief from editors over the years!

    More seriously, I will point out that at least when writing for publication, a writer does need to be aware of the accepted style by which his or her work will be edited, which is why I asked if WR recommends that learners make use of any of the common style manuals to help them through questions that have no universally accepted right-or-wrong answer. I'm still hoping a moderator will weigh in on that.

    But the more I look at the commas in that sentence Onemorning shared back in 2011, the more I think they are just plain incorrect.

    I agree that parenthetical material should be set off by commas, but "...and its lavish expenditure..." is not parenthetical. As you can see from the plural verb, fill, the writer intended it to be part of a compound subject. In addition, '...please the eye or tempt the taste...' is a simple either/or pair, not a series in which the elements should be separated by commas.
     

    JustKate

    Moderate Mod
    Oh, dear, if few things are forbidden when it comes to commas, I've been taking far too much grief from editors over the years!

    More seriously, I will point out that at least when writing for publication, a writer does need to be aware of the accepted style by which his or her work will be edited, which is why I asked if WR recommends that learners make use of any of the common style manuals to help them through questions that have no universally accepted right-or-wrong answer. I'm still hoping a moderator will weigh in on that.

    But the more I look at the commas in that sentence Onemorning shared back in 2011, the more I think they are just plain incorrect.

    I agree that parenthetical material should be set off by commas, but "...and its lavish expenditure..." is not parenthetical. As you can see from the plural verb, fill, the writer intended it to be part of a compound subject. In addition, '...please the eye or tempt the taste...' is a simple either/or pair, not a series in which the elements should be separated by commas.
    Editors are supposed to make those judgements, so we can't go by that. I've been (and still am now) on both sides of the editorial desk, which means that I've had the "law" regarding commas laid down for me - and I've done some laying down of the law myself. But the thing to remember is that while editors are in charge of making things grammatical, they are also responsible for enforcing style, and just because something is contrary to one's style guide of choice, that doesn't mean it's ungrammatical or incorrect.

    We have to differentiate between "commas that we dislike and/or think are unnecessary" and "commas that are flat-out wrong." I don't think you can find much support for the idea that any of those commas are absolutely incorrect. You're free to dislike them - and in fact there is one that I dislike quite a bit - but that doesn't make it wrong.

    It would be nice if we could recommend a style guide. I don't think I've ever seen this happen here, but if I'm wrong about that, I hope someone corrects me. There is no such thing as a "universal" style guide, though. AP is great for what it does, which is help those of us who write news to maintain a consistent style (I use it routinely and have done so for years) but it's not appropriate for every kind of writing - not even close.
     
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    Prairiefire

    Senior Member
    US (Midwest) - English
    Thanks, for the clarification. I'm hoping readers, of this forum, at least the more advanced readers, will find their way, to some of the more helpful, style manuals. I'm also hoping that, reading these two sentences, did not give you motion sickness, as your eyes, and comprehension, bumped along, through all these, what should we call them, fragments, or clauses. :)
     
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    JustKate

    Moderate Mod
    OK, you got me. There are some commas in your comma-bestrewn post that I would have no hesitation in calling "flat-out wrong." The one after "thanks," for example...and the one before "of this forum"...and the one after "their way"...

    But that still doesn't make the commas in the original sentences flat-out wrong! :)
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    The source wasn't given. It's obviously not modern English. Let's Google.
    Frederick Douglass, from My Bondage and My Freedom. 1845
     

    Prairiefire

    Senior Member
    US (Midwest) - English
    Ah, 1845. That explains both the infestation of commas and the "desideratum!"

    Thanks, Andy and Kate.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    Here's a shameless plug for the "Comma portal" curated by forum member "comma user" where a large number of discussions over the years have been indexed/curated for just such an occasion as this. This very thread is one included in the links under "Clause element" in the database.

    Prairiefire wrote
    ... I asked if WR recommends that learners make use of any of the common style manuals to help them through questions that have no universally accepted right-or-wrong answer. I'm still hoping a moderator will weigh in on that.
    I am a moderator but the following comment is as a member. The general recommendation, not officially from WR per se, but by most members (and moderators are members too) is "follow the styleguide your editor or institution or journal specifies" -- if only for ease of editing and for internal consistency. If they do not specify one, then select one of the common ones (or, more likely, one you are familiar with already), and follow that:D
     
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    Prairiefire

    Senior Member
    US (Midwest) - English
    I was browsing in the comma portal--my goodness, people put a lot of work in on that!!!--when I found this 2011 post that piqued my curiosity.

    Lots of very interesting stuff in there.

    It surprised me that such uncommonly excessive use of commas got nothing more than an "People do lots of things with commas" response with no accompanying counsel that the sentence would be considered by many (most?) modern readers and writers to be very badly punctuated indeed. (Particularly since Onemorning posed a very good question about the subject-verb disagreement that arises when the second half of the compound subject is made parenthetical by setting it off with commas.)

    I promise not to revive any more old discussions!
     
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