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Opinion

Column: A Word, Please: Set off direct quotations with commas, but hold back on the rest

What punctuation, if any, would you add to the following sentence?

Exiting your host’s bathroom after half an hour and saying “Don’t worry; I fixed your toilet” is not an example of excellent etiquette.

Don’t answer that yet. Before you do, you should know a few things.

First, it’s not me asking. The question was posted by Grammar Table, also known as Ellen Jovin, who “staffs a Grammar Table in Verdi Square, NYC, to answer grammar questions, take complaints and discuss grammar philosophy,” according to her Twitter bio. “Also, it’s free.”

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Second, don’t bother pondering the semicolon.

The conversation that sprang from her question consisted exclusively of copy editors talking about commas. No one who spoke up had an issue with the semicolon.

Instead, the talk came down to the question of whether there should be a comma after the word “saying” and another after the word “toilet.”

I figured that, yes, commas are needed. After all, there’s a rule that says quotations are set off from the rest of a sentence with commas.

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But that rule doesn’t apply in every situation.

Here’s my Twitter friend Mededitor, a professional editor of the med variety: I’d say the quote doesn’t need to be set off with commas because it’s not reported speech; it isn’t a direct quote. This is words being posited qua words, akin to “Don’t shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.”

And here’s editor and teacher Elizabeth D’Anjou, replying to Meditor: Exactly. I categorize quotations in my grammar class as those that are “dialogue” and those that are “integrated into the grammar of the larger sentence.”

It applies even if a specific person is quoted: My dad saying “Don’t worry” made me worry a great deal.

They’re right. Which, to me, is welcome news. I’ve long felt obligated to put commas in a sentence like: When Joe said, “Stop,” Bob could tell he meant it.

Those commas look weird, they break up the flow of the sentence, and now I know they’re unnecessary in a case like this.

The Chicago Manual of Style explains why, though many quotations take commas, others don’t.

“When it is simply a matter of identifying a speaker, a comma is used after said, replied, asked, and similar verbs to introduce a quotation,” Chicago notes.

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Its example: Garrett replied, “I hope you are not referring to me.”

Now here’s how Chicago explains those other situations. “Many writers mistakenly use a comma to introduce any direct quotation, regardless of its relationship to the surrounding text. But when a quotation introduced midsentence forms a syntactical part of the surrounding sentence, no comma or other mark of punctuation is needed to introduce it, though punctuation may be required for other reasons.”

Chicago’s examples: Donovan made a slight bow and said he was “very glad.” One of the protesters scrawled “Long live opera!” in huge red letters.

But the more you look at these rules, the more you start to wonder: Why does any quotation, no matter its relationship to the rest of the sentence, need to be set off with commas?

“That’s the thing: using commas at *all* to set off quotations (which are *already* set off by quotation marks) seems pointless and redundant,” wrote Shecky, an editor who looks at these commas as “the grammatical equivalent of the human appendix: unnecessary and can cause trouble.”

I had never thought about it before. I just stick the commas in like a good little editor. But confronted with such clear logic, I can’t think of a single thing these commas add in the way of clarity or readability. I’m not the only one.

“Schecky, I like your thinking on this,” Grammar Table replied. “This is one of about five or six areas where I’ve gone lighter on commas in recent years.”

Perhaps there’s a revolution brewing.

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June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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