Monthly Archives: July 2017

If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?

The only thing as bizarre and horrifying as the Trump administration’s loudening belches of vicious, incompetent corruption is the coverage thereof in the New Yorker. Specifically, the punctuation.

You may have seen this headline:

Donald Trump, Jr.,’s Love for Russian Dirt

Period, comma, apostrophe. What a grotesque sight for these three punctuation marks to be colluding so brazenly. Why did this horror happen?

The New Yorker’s Andrew Boynton explains:

The reasoning for the punctuation of “Jr.,’s” is pretty straightforward. It’s a collision of conventions. The first convention is The New Yorker’s—we place a comma before “Jr.” Doing so leads to another of our conventions: when something like “Jr.” occurs in the middle of a phrase, clause, or sentence, it is set off by its preceding comma and a following comma. Thus: “Ed Begley, Jr., was in ‘St. Elsewhere.’” A third convention is one that we all accept: the possessive is indicated by the addition of an apostrophe and “s.” We (the magazine) like our punctuation; we set things off with commas a lot; it drives some people nuts (i.e., it’s “bullshit”). This reaction is not surprising; it is also not new. With “Jr.” occurring in the middle of a line, where else is the possessive indicator supposed to go?

I’m happy to tell them where to stick it.

It’s silly

Boynton’s case all sounds very logical, but likewise it’s very silly. The New Yorker is a magnificent publication, and one of the most carefully copyedited in the world, but some of its style conventions are odd – and applied too zealously.

A house style on punctuation (or any other aspect of language) exists to help the reader get at what the writer is saying. Consistency is a big part of that: if an article’s comma style varies from one paragraph to another, it can be disorienting and distracting.

But English is a magical beast, and the ways we can ride it are myriad. This means that too much consistency can get in the way. Sometimes a mostly reasonable style rule can cause trouble, and the pile-up that is “Jr.,’s” is one of those times. In these cases, a wise copyeditor will break the rule – or find a way to avoid it.

Also, it’s wrong

Oh yes, and neither comma should be there anyway, regardless of the apostrophe. A New Yorker convention this may be, but the pair of them are confusing and misleading. To explain, I’ll rely on the magazine’s wonderful “Comma Queen”, Mary Norris.

She has repeatedly defended the first and second commas in this notorious New Yorker sentence: “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret.” Critics think these two commas needlessly fussy, but Norris says:

I took a good, hard look at the magazine’s policy, and I persuaded myself that in fact these commas were not indiscriminate. They marked off segments of the sentence that were not germane to the meaning. The point of the sentence… is that Atwater expressed regret before he died. What he died of and when he died of it are both extra details that the author, Jane Mayer, provides only to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. They aren’t essential to the meaning of the sentence. They are nonrestrictive.

I don’t wholly agree with this policy, but Norris’s reasoning is clear. The two phrases bracketed by commas – “of brain cancer” and “in 1991” – are inessential asides. You could cut them and the main statement would be intact: “Before Atwater died, he expressed regret.”

With that in mind, let’s look at the Trump headline again:

Donald Trump, Jr.,’s Love for Russian Dirt

Here, “Jr.” is bracketed by the pair of commas. It looks like one of those inessential, nonrestrictive asides. So let’s try cutting it to see if it leaves the main part intact:

Donald Trump’s Love for Russian Dirt

Nope. When there are two Donald Trumps in a story, “Jr.” and “Sr.” are absolutely essential. But the commas suggest otherwise.

Perhaps there is a line in the New Yorker style guide saying, “Oh, but in this sort of case, the commas are working differently.” But, if so, the New Yorker readers don’t know this.

One of the lessons it took me a while to learn as a copyeditor is that you must work to satisfy readers who neither know nor care what your style guide says. If instead you work – however accurately – to correspond to a geekily intricate but internally consistent set of arcane rules, you are failing. You are working to satisfy yourself and your peers.

Those commas, like the Donald Trumps, are a repellent pair that I wish would appear in the news less often.