Rant on the Insidious Appearance of the Penultimate Comma

Yes, I know this is a blog on mental health, not on grammar.  However, a phenomenon has crept into the written English language that threatens my mental health, since it causes me to scream every time I encounter it.  It is the Penultimate Comma, which is a comma that appears between two modifiers preceding a noun.  It looks like this, when used properly:

“A big, black dog.”  (You could also correctly write “A big black dog.”)

When used improperly, it looks like this:

“A white, Cadillac convertible.”

What’s the difference?  It’s very simple.  If you can hypothetically insert the word “and” between the two modifiers, you can substitute a comma for the “and.”

As in: “A big and black dog.”  You wouldn’t necessarily say it that way, because it sounds awkward, but it’s grammatically correct to do so.

However, to say: “A white and Cadillac convertible” sounds bizarre, if not ridiculous.  

I know from whence this grammatical misconception arose: school children of this, and sometimes the previous, generation have been taught that if you can say “A white convertible” and also “a Cadillac convertible,” then you should go ahead and insert a comma between “white” and “Cadillac.”  This is wrong.

Why?  Because, dear readers, it sounds utterly absurd.  That is why.  If you read it out loud, placing the pause of the comma where it is written, you will see.

Another incorrect example:  “An expensive, Tudor house.”  No, no, no!  Yes, it is an expensive house, and it is also a Tudor house,  but it is “an expensive Tudor house” and that’s that.

Another correct example:  “An expensive, garish negligee.”   Why?  Because you can say “An expensive and garish negligee.”  Very simple.

How do I come by the audacity to write this vituperous essay on the Penultimate (next-to-last) Comma?  It is simply a product of thirty years, more or less, of editing various  book manuscripts and hundreds of medical and scientific papers, as well as a couple of dissertations.  I learned by Experience.  Period. 

 

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28 Comments

  1. i do believe i adore you

    Reply
  2. Howisbradley

     /  July 22, 2013

    I must admit that the comma and I are much closer friends than we should be.

    Reply
  3. LOL! i am so glad you have written about this–i have been taking mental notes for this very thing for a long time. and you are absolutely correct, the generations in school now are not being taught proper grammar and are using parts of speech, like the comma, quite incorrectly. i think the usage of electronic media, such as ipads, iphones, texting, and emailing has greatly increased the amount of incorrect grammar and also poor spelling. after shortening sentences to the smallest intelligible phrase, and then shortening words so they don’t take so long to type, we are left with a new generation of technologically savvy youth who are very well versed electronically, but cannot actually spell or form a logical and correct sentence. what will happen to the written (or typed) language in the next 3 generations (approximately 90yrs)?? will it even resemble ‘proper english’ or will it be an entirely new form of communication, that we the ‘elders’, will not even recognize?

    Reply
    • Very good points. I have heard that in a number of American public school districts, handwriting (let alone penmanship!) has been dropped from the curriculum in favor of keyboarding! What will happen, I want to know, after the Apocalypse, when one newly-made cave-person wishes to communicate with another? Will they have to go back to making scratch-marks on rocks????

      Reply
  4. Thanks for explaining this. I kind of understood how to use the penultimate comma but was unsure why it should be so…

    Reply
  5. Sorry about the opposite opinion but I must confess that I dislike the need people have that others use proper grammar, language is already extremely difficult and commas and parenthesis are very helpful.
    For me it’s better to say what you want wrongly than say nothing at all.
    I don’t think anything about grammar is simple.
    The people who write in my favorite writing style don’t really follow grammar, they write like me with commas and parenthesis in wrong places and don’t waste energy trying to edit to a correct style, the natural style looks nice and less empty.

    If I cared about grammar I would be upset with how most people I talk to write and I wouldn’t write anything, few had proper education, some have problems reading, many have to adapt language, repeat words several times or learn by imitation and several other gramatical complications.
    I love reading texts like that, especially word repetition. More people should appreciate that because as long as the content is understood I don’t see a problem.
    For me language should be accessible and adaptable, especially in academic places that could use the diversity.

    I did like the explanation about grammar on your post and while I can’t use it I like knowing new things.

    Reply
    • Hey, there’s a big difference between writing as art and writing as a way to convey information, like a news article or a literary book or essay. I’m not talking about writing as art, or writings by people who write with a paucity of tools or education.

      And I hope you know that I welcome divergent opinions and points of view! I encourage them! I love them! I want them! I want YOU to feel comfortable offering and arguing differing opinions. That’s what makes life tasty!

      Reply
      • Hi, I’m glad to know, different opinions are always interesting. I actually like talking about language and writing.

        I wasn’t talking about artistic writing in my comment, I was talking about any kind of writing including books, news and essays.

        The information in that kind of texts should be clear but there are many ways to be clear.
        I don’t think they need to follow rules, people think and write differently and I like seeing that, in artistic writing, in books, news, schools and academic settings. I get more information from people who write differently because it’s how I think.

        For me grammar rules should be a guide. Something like: Here are some suggestions about possible ways to make your text clear and understandable.

        I really disliked when I was in school and college and my teachers said my writing was wrong and weird, they had no problem understanding the text but said it had problems with grammatical rules and apparently it just looked weird because I write like I think.

        I’m also talking about any use of written language and not just English since my native language is Portuguese.

        Reply
        • Portuguese! I LOVE Portuguese! Portugal or Brazil? I grew up I New England with the children of Portuguese fishermen. We had a blast. Then later I became a Brazilian music fanatic, and learned some. My second language is Spanish, so it’s not too hard to make the leap. It’s all about saudade, meo amor. (Probably thrashing your language!)

          Reply
          • I’m from Brazil.
            Hard to find people who like Portuguese, most only know Spanish, I think I’m the only person who speaks Portuguese but can’t understand Spanish, everyone finds it easy.
            Saudade, meu amor. Close enough.

            Reply
            • I’m a Caitano Veloso nut, and I love Forro too. Actually, I have not yet found a Brazilian music genre that I don’t love. Where do you live now?

              Reply
  6. Punctuation IS important. See below:
    Woman, without her man, is nothing.
    Woman, without her, man is nothing.
    I’m not a perfectionist, but you can completely miss a point if you punctuate improperly.

    Reply
  7. Good grammar is important! We argue over comma placement in my office all the time. However, usually I am right 🙂

    Reply
  8. songtothesirens

     /  July 23, 2013

    Read the sentence aloud or aloud in your head (if taking a multiple choice Abnormal Psychology exam written by Igor). If the pause doesn’t seem right then it probably isn’t.

    Reply
      • songtothesirens

         /  July 23, 2013

        I also have a thing about grammar and correct spelling of words. The only time I seem to be able to ignore it is if the person has dyslexia.

        Reply
        • There are a lot of brain-wiring diversities that make it difficult to learn standard grammar. And as Diversity Is Art pointed out above, some people’s English is not their mother tongue. And yet there have been writers, particularly Slavic and Russian as well as Latin American, whose written English is so beautiful it makes me cry. I think it’s possible that, not being a native speaker, they are not limited by banality. We are used to certain syntax, certain cadence, certain use of voice–a non-native speaker has many more degrees of freedom, while still staying within the boundaries of grammar.

          Reply
          • songtothesirens

             /  July 23, 2013

            I agree with that. I myself have ADD which I never knew I had. I just thought my brain was overactive, and that was why I could find the one typo in a 300 or 400 page textbook.

            I also agree that non-native speakers have a degree of latitude in both their written and spoken English. Some of the most beautiful words I have heard or read have come from non-native speakers. It is because they are not bound by our notions of cadence, syntax and other parts of correct grammar and writing that their English is so romantic and without the limits that we have imposed on ourselves.

            Reply
  9. I did a linguistics degree so used to get a bee in my bonnet about such things. I feel your pain 🙂 Or at least I used to. I’ve somehow managed to just stop caring about it now. I decided that as long as I do the correct thing that is all that matters. It was making me far too angsty! lol

    Reply
    • Ah, you’re better adapted than I am! I did a Master’s in Anthropology, a great deal of which was in Linguistics. Even worse, I had five years of Latin, which has ruined me for life (although I did love it). I wish I scored lower on the OCD scale. I would also care much less about picky, picky things.

      Reply
      • haha I was REALLY anal about it for a long time. I’m not sure how I got over it. I get a bit of anxiety and I guess in the end I decided that for my mental health I had to choose to lose some of the things I got too worked up about. I almost did Latin but didn’t have enough subjects left to fit it all in. I think I would have loved it but I’m sure it would have ruined me too! lol I’m very envious about the Anthropology Master! Ah if only I could study forever.

        Reply

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