To provide a bit of glamour and excitement for my readers, I thought I would examine the wonderful world of the parenthetical clause in today’s posting.
I was reading an article in my newspaper yesterday which unwittingly provides an example of what can happen if you lose track of your commas. Commas can be used like brackets (parentheses) as in He won the race, his first of the season, by two seconds.
The information between the commas is a parenthetical clause and if you removed it you would still have a complete sentence. Overlooking the last comma, as some do, results in a completely different meaning:
He won the race, his first of the season by two seconds.
Technically speaking you would be saying that it was his first race of the season by two seconds, ie he started his second race of the season two seconds after the end of his first one. Which would be pretty good going.
That one is pretty easy to spot, and the problem often comes in more complex sentences like the one I read yesterday about Marilyn Manson, who was squashed by falling stage scenery. Personally, I think there is a kind of natural justice in people who name themselves after mass murderers getting squashed by ‘a huge pistol-shaped prop’, although if I’d been on hand I would probably have been magnanimous enough to help him out. If he begged a bit.
Anyway, the article read:
The singer, whose real name is Brian Warner, was rescued by stage hands who lifted the structure off but did not stand up.
That seems very lazy on the part of the stage hands to me. Presumably they
happened to be sitting within arm’s reach having a cuppa or something. I dare say that from the comfort of your chair, if you were really careful you could lift the prop with one hand without spilling your tea held in the other. Or could they have been ‘taking the knee’? It’s very popular these days. The other possibility is that there’s something amiss with the punctuation. The whole thing is actually a bit clumsy. You could put a comma after ‘off’, but it would still be rather clunky and adding ‘he’ after ‘but’ would make it clearer. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a mouthful and I’d break it up into two sentences.
To be fair, newspaper production happens at a much faster pace than the kind of writing I’m used to so things like this are bound to slip through – but let it be a lesson to the unwary.
(Any mistakes, punctuation or otherwise, in this article, which was written at a very fast pace, are entirely deliberate, on my part, as a sort of test to my readers.)