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What I've Learned
Is it permissible to put a comma between the subject and verb in a sentence? Who cares, I hear you say. Well, it may turn out that you do. Read on.
Consider the answer to this question: Which is mightier, grammar or a gun?
The answer, is grammar.
Did you see what I did? I put a comma between answer (the subject) and is (the verb). This is the sort of thing that makes lower-echelon members of the grammar police want to pull out truncheons and thump people.
Here are a few pronouncements culled from grammar-policing websites:
"If there is a word or a group of words that functions as the subject and there is a word or a group of words that functions as the verb, then don't separate them with a comma."
"A comma indicates a break in the sentence and since the subject is linked to the verb (the subject carries out the action described by the verb) it is incorrect to have a break between these two elements."
"The only time you may separate a subject from its verb is if the verb from the subject clause is repeated." (An example of this might be: She who hit me, hit me hard."
"The only excuse for a comma after the subject is when the subject is enormously long, 20 words or more, and the writer and reader need to draw breath and wipe their brow before continuing."
To all of which I say, fiddle sticks.
Punctuation is a tool that writers use to guide readers and make meaning and phrasing clear.
Rules and guidelines are good, but in matters of punctuation I don't like don't, never, incorrect, and the only time. A better approach is to say as a general rule or most of the time, for there are lovely and warranted exceptions.
I might write "The answer, is grammar" if the word grammar were unexpected and presented like the punchline to a joke.
A long pause could be gained by saying, "The answer--wait for it--is grammar."
A shorter paused can be had by using a dash, "The answer--is grammar."
A comma produces a briefer pause, one of maybe half a beat.
Sometimes for similar purposes, writers will put periods where periods don't normally belong. A reviewer of the movie, Let the Right One In, wrote this: "Best. Vampire movie. Ever."
How we read that line, even to ourselves, differs markedly from "Best vampire movie ever." The writer used punctuation to guide our phrasing and to enhance meaning.
This is boring, I hear you moan. What do we care if a writer puts a comma between the subject and verb.
Do you care about gun control? If you are for it or against it, a comma could make you very happy or dreadfully unhappy.
In an early copy of the U.S. Constitution, the Second Amendment says:
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
The last four words (shall not be infringed) is the predicate. But what, I ask you, is the subject? What is it that shall not be infringed.
Those against gun control say that the subject is "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms."
If that is so, notice that there is a comma between--wait for it--the subject and the verb.
Those in favor of gun control say that the commas in this amendment indicate that the subject of the sentence is militia. It is the right of the militia to bear arms.
(Notice that in this case, too, there would be a comma between the subject and verb.)
The effect of commas on the meaning of the Second Amendment has been argued before the Supreme Court, as recently as last year.
Which interpretation is correct? The version of the Constitution that was authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, then-Secretary of State, and presented to the states for ratification presents the Second Amendment this way:
"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
Gone are the extra commas and various capitalizations. This has far from settled the matter, though, and commas in the Second Amendment continues to be a hotly debated topic.
The Maine Constitution, by the way, says in Article 1, Section 16, "Every citizen has a right to keep and bear arms and this right shall never be questioned."
No pesky little commas there.
But what is meant by questioned? My head, aches.