The Comma Serves Three Masters

The comma serves three masters: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Sometimes [,] these masters may be at odds.

(1) Consider this sentence from a short story: “After dinner I carried out the garbage.” Grammar requires a comma after ‘dinner’, and normally the writer should provide one. But consider rhetoric: we may want the comma there, or not, depending on how the writer is shaping the story’s rhythm and narrative voice. The choice is a judgment as to which master must prevail this time.

(2) Sometimes none of the masters is happy. Consider this sentence (from Dana Milbank’s column in the  Washington Post, 1 May 2009):

“The stated purpose of the hearing was to examine whether merchant ships need private or military security on board.”

This sentence could mean either:

(a) “The stated purpose of the hearing was to examine whether merchant ships need private or military security on board, or no security at all.”

or

(b) “The stated purpose of the hearing was to examine who should provide on-board security for merchant ships: private firms or the military.”

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