Thursday, August 31, 2006

Comma Confusion

Lately, I've noticed a few different species of comma users. It interesting to see the way people misuse them. Let's take a look at some of the groups of comma abusers that you might encounter in the wild:

1. Overusers - This group is probably the largest group of comma abusers in existence. They sprinkle extra commas everywhere. When in doubt, they always drop in an extra comma.

2. Abstainers - This group shuns commas entirely. Their motto seems to be: when in doubt, leave it out. Also, when you're sure, leave it out. It is a bit jarring to see an appositive phrase naked against the word it modifies.

3. Guessers - These people are very inconsistent in their comma use. They can't quite remember the rules. Each sentence is a new adventure with them.

4. Conjunctioners - This is a rare species of comma abusers. A conjunctioner will isolate each and every conjunction in a sentence with commas. (We'll look at this below)

So, when should one actually use a comma? Let's look at the most obvious cases and keep things simple.

When to use a comma:

1. To indicate a pause - This is the raison d'etre of a comma. Anytime you want to indicate a slight pause, use a comma. For a full stop, use a period.

2. To directly address someone or something - Use a comma before the person or thing being addressed. (see the post "Goodbye, Vocative" for a more detailed explanation).

3. Before a negating conjunction - Do not use a comma with "and" or "or". Use a comma with "but", which indicates a negation or exception to the previous clause.

4. Before a modifier - The "which" in the previous sentence is a good example. It introduces a modifier (in this case, a clause). For an appositive phrase (another type of modifier), use a comma both before and after the phrase. Look at the following sentence. Jane's friend, Billy, eats marshmallows. "Billy" is the appositive phrase.

5. Before a verb in the present progressive - A verb in the present progressive ends in "-ing". This is sometimes incorrectly called the "gerund", but a gerund indicates a nominal form (not a verbal form). An example of this usage might be: Susan walked into the room, eating a handful of popcorn.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Words and the Bees

I learned a little Esperanto the other day ( What a great community and a very interesting language. Speakers of one of the Romance languages will find it easy to learn as the lexicon derives heavily from Latin (in a more recognizable, Italian form). I wondered why Esperanto had never really caught on as an auxiliary language (i.e. a language that can be spoken between two people with different native languages). I suppose it's due to the fact that French and English have often filled that role. But, that is a whole other post in itself.

One of the discussion forums had a posting about gender in Esperanto. French and English aside, this might be the real reason that the Esperanto community isn't larger than it is. No, not because of it's handling of gender. Because of posts like that one. So many assumptions made, so many linguistic misunderstandings.

Let's step back a moment and look at gender in a language. First of all, words don't have gender. Or, let me put it another way: words don't have gender. Gender is a biological trait. For reproduction. Words don't reproduce.

Most languages, however, arbitrarily call one group of words "masculine" (the group which has endings that match the word for "man" in that language). Another group will be called "feminine" (the group which has endings that match the word for "woman" in that language). Sometimes there's even "neuter" (for words that fall into neither category).

But, the words themselves don't have any gender. It's just a term for convenience. It helps us to identify that group of words. The actual term in Italian would be "genere" which means "type". Words don't have gender. Look at one with its clothes off sometime if you don't believe me.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's look at the poster's complaint. The idea was that Esperanto is sexist because a few words have the suffix -in- added to them to indicate biological femininity. Of course, it's just as easy to say that all words in Esperanto inherently contain the -in- suffix and that the omission of the this indicates biological masculinity.

Even readers of this blog (I'm assuming a certain amount of interest in linguistics) will probably find this very arbitrary and semantic. And that, my friends, is the point. Nit picking like this raises a barrier around your community. I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that these kind of assumptions and agenda pushing get in the way of the wider adoption of an interesting language.