Comma usage in a subject/verb/object sentence.
February 9, 2011 11:41 AM   Subscribe

Why is the sentence "Let's read, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen." incorrectly punctuated?

Sigh. I didn't want to have to ask you guys this, but my boss will not accept my arguments.

I need internet proof that the comma in the sentence:

Let's read, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

is incorrect. I've offered her information on direct objects and the like for my argument that:

Let's read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.


is the correct sentence. I can't find anything that addresses this specific situation to prove one way or the other, and she can't accept that the larger rules prove that the latter sentence is correct. I'm really trying to be less pedantic generally, but this is important because we are teachers and this is for a handout.

Please, for the love of all that is holy, if I am wrong about this there will be much slinking in my future.
posted by rinosaur to Writing & Language (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Let's eat, pizza."
Is that correct? Of course not.

A book title is not some special class of noun that deserves extra punctuation.
posted by AugieAugustus at 11:43 AM on February 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


There is no reason to put a comma in there. What reason does your boss cite?

"Let's play tennis." "Let's eat pizza." "Let's read Freedom." Then you need the comma, because "by Jonathan Franzen" is a subordinate clause. "Freedom" is not a subordinate clause, it's the subject of the sentence.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:48 AM on February 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


Comma Abuse

Commas in the wrong places can break a sentence into illogical segments or confuse readers with unnecessary and unexpected pauses.

12. Don't use a comma to separate the subject from the verb.

Incorrect:An eighteen-year old in California, is now considered an adult.

Incorrect:The most important attribute of a ball player, is quick reflex actions.
From: Purdue Online Writing Lab - Extended Rules for Using Commas
posted by 2bucksplus at 11:49 AM on February 9, 2011 [13 favorites]


By including the comma, you are creating a new clause that is not required.

Recall the Eats, Shoots & Leaves joke about the panda.

"Eats shoots and leaves" = no new clause= you're eating the tasty shoots and leaves.

"Eats, shoots and leaves" = creates a new clause where "shoots" and "leaves" become verbs within the context of the sentence.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:51 AM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Another comma error is the use of a comma between the subject and the verb. The separation of the subject from the verb by an intervening comma is called 'comma separation'."

"you will never have a single comma between the subject and verb in any clause"
posted by Paragon at 11:51 AM on February 9, 2011


A comma is often used to set off the subject of a direct address. The classic example of this is "Let's eat Grandpa!" versus "Let's eat, Grandpa!" In your sentence, using the comma makes it a command, like you're urging the book Freedom to read with you, which clearly is not what you're trying to say.
posted by serialcomma at 11:51 AM on February 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


Your boss is wrong. A comma doesn't go there. Tell her the Internet said so.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:52 AM on February 9, 2011


Haha, Augie, I actually tried that argument! To no avail.
posted by rinosaur at 11:52 AM on February 9, 2011


Here's the AP stylebook:

"Do not set an essential phrase off from the rest of a sentence by commas: We saw the award-winning movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." (No comma, because many movies have won awards, and without the name of the movie the reader would not know which movie was meant.)"

This isn't a quirk of AP style, either; it's common practice pretty much regardless of what style you follow (though Chicago and most others would call it a restrictive clause rather than an essential clause).

What is likely confusing your boss is that commas can also be used in apposition: "Let's read Jonathan Franzen's latest book, Freedom." Here, the comma is correct, because the title of the book is not essential; it is not restricting the meaning of "latest book," because Franzen only has one latest book. (Note that here the comma falls between two nouns rather than between the subject and the verb.)
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 11:54 AM on February 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


If your boss is a teacher and will not accept grammar rules as proof of something, what kind of evidence do you think she will take?

The sentence "Let's read, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen" would mean that you are addressing someone named Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.
posted by proj at 11:55 AM on February 9, 2011 [7 favorites]


Ah, commas. Where I work life-long animosity is caused by commas. Your boss is wrong, the comma goes after Freedom. The book is the purpose of the sentence, so you would not want to partially remove it from the sentence (which is what the comma does).

You could say "Let's read. Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, would be a good book." I think this is why your boss is confused.

"by Jonathan Franzen" is not necessary for the sentence, it is kind of an add on for clarification, so it gets the comma.
posted by fifilaru at 11:56 AM on February 9, 2011


The sentence "Let's read, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen" would mean that you are addressing someone named Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

As in, for example, the sentence 'Let's read, Trout Fishing in America.'
posted by box at 11:59 AM on February 9, 2011 [8 favorites]


Normally I'd hesitate to say this, because it's not a real rule, but your boss doesn't seem convinced by the real rules. So, ask her to say it out loud. Is the sentence easier to understand if she breathes or pauses between "read" and "Freedom?" No, it is not!
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:03 PM on February 9, 2011


This is not the subject/verb error everyone keeps citing. The subject in this sentence is "us" (or implied "we" since that is the proper noun case), the verb is "let" and/or "read" depending on how you want to count it, and "Freedom by Jonathan Franzen" is a direct object.

It is, however, the subordinate clause error cited by Sidhedevil.
posted by rkent at 12:06 PM on February 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Don't forget to mention that of course he's too busy and occupied with important managerial concerns to be an expert on a silly thing like grammar.
posted by amtho at 12:07 PM on February 9, 2011


Ask her to cite a rule in her defense.
posted by creasy boy at 12:09 PM on February 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yes, what creasy boy says. You don't just go putting commas in without knowing why!
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:12 PM on February 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


You're right. And you're on the record with that as your position. Now stop arguing with your boss.
posted by The World Famous at 12:18 PM on February 9, 2011 [14 favorites]


What is likely confusing your boss is that commas can also be used in apposition: "Let's read Jonathan Franzen's latest book, Freedom."

Another possible source of confusion: You can use a comma to set off a direct quotation after a verb of speaking, thinking, writing, etc. And the usual ways to indicate a title or a direct quotation involve italics or quotation marks. It may be that OP's boss mis-learned the rule as "Always put a comma before something in quotation marks" or "Always put a comma before something in italics" or some such.

Yet another: it could be they're hearing it in their head with a WAIT FOR IT type pause: "Let's read..... Freedom! By Jonathan Franzen!" Some people have been taught in school that you put a comma anywhere you pause. This is wrong but incredibly widespread and you probably aren't going to talk your boss out obeying their beloved third-grade homeroom teacher.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:20 PM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's correct if "Freedom by Jonathan Franzen" is the name of the person who you are speaking to.
posted by Flunkie at 12:25 PM on February 9, 2011


rkent is of course correct about the subject/verb thing. Freedom is the object of the sentence. Of course, under most circumstances, you don't put a random comma before the object either.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 12:26 PM on February 9, 2011


This is my absolute biggest grammar pet peeve! And the only thing I've ever edited on wikipedia :).

Your boss is trying to put an appositive where there shouldn't be one. Appositives are little clauses separated by commas that restate/redescribe something, and, critically, are completely removable without losing the meaning of the sentence -- if you took them out entirely, the sentence would still be unambiguous and clear.

Valid use of appositives:
Let's read my favorite book, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen"
Not valid use:
Let's read the book, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen"

In the first case, if you removed the appositive, the book you're reading would still be completely unambiguous, because it's your favorite book and there's only one of them. In the second case, if you removed it, you're just stopping after "the book", which, unless you've established earlier what you're talking about, no longer makes any sense.

Other examples:
WRONG:
Bob Smith wrote the 2015 novel, Book by Bob Smith.
RIGHT:
Bob Smith wrote the best-selling book of 2015, Book by Bob Smith.
WRONG:
She starred in the movie, Awesome Movie.
RIGHT:
She starred in Jerry's recent directorial debut, Awesome Movie.

Note that in the wrong sentences, if you remove the part after the comma, you no longer know what book/movie is being talked about. In the right sentences, if you remove the part after the comma, it is still 100% unambiguous which book/movie you're talking about, the appositive just re-states it.
posted by brainmouse at 12:29 PM on February 9, 2011 [9 favorites]


Brainmouse is right. IAAEP.

p.s. It's not an issue of separating the subject from the verb (as someone said above) since that isn't happening in the sentence.
posted by BlooPen at 12:52 PM on February 9, 2011


Yeah, it's not separating the subject from the verb, it's separating the object of the verb. The only POSSIBLE place a comma could go in this sentence is after "Freedom":

Let's read "Freedom," by Jonathan Franzen.

but it's totally unnecessary.
posted by KathrynT at 1:08 PM on February 9, 2011


technically, the sentence is urging "freedom by frazen" to read. speaking to a book, particularly encouraging it to read, isn't likely to get one anywhere.

right, friends?
posted by crankyrogalsky at 1:09 PM on February 9, 2011


"Freedom" is not a subordinate clause, it's the subject of the sentence.

12. Don't use a comma to separate the subject from the verb.

These statements sound like impressive, technical grammar analysis, but they happen to be incorrect. "Freedom" is not a subject. It isn't doing anything. It's being "read" by us. It's an object. An example of using "Freedom" as the subject of a sentence would be, "Freedom tells the story of blah-blah-blah," which is nothing like the structure of this sentence.

There is no reason to put a comma between the verb and the object. The first answer shows this with "Let's eat pizza." Pizza is the object.
posted by John Cohen at 1:16 PM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]



The subject in this sentence is "us" (or implied "we" since that is the proper noun case), the verb is "let" and/or "read" depending on how you want to count it, and "Freedom by Jonathan Franzen" is a direct object.


The subject is actually an implied "you."

(You) [subject] let [verb] us [indirect object] read [infinitive, and direct object] Freedom [object of the infinitive].

So the grammatical rule would be that you don't separate an infinitive from its object with a comma. You don't say, "I want to eat, food."

[rkent, this also explains why it is "let us" instead of "let we": us in an indirect object, not a subject.]
posted by torticat at 1:24 PM on February 9, 2011


She's wrong, of course.

My guess is that she's mis-applying the grammatical convention of placing a comma before quoted speech, as in: Jack said, "rinosaur's boss is wrong." You might want to ask if that's what she's thinking of. If so, point out that naming a title - whether using quotation marks or italics - is not the same thing at all.
posted by Decani at 2:27 PM on February 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Maybe she's thinking that a comma is used to indicate a pause, and she wants to put a pause in there? Punctuating the vocalization "Let's read (rolls eyes, thinks of various options, maybe says ummm) Freedom by Jonathan Franzen" is properly done with an ellipsis.

She might be trying to write "Let's read...Freedom by Jonathan Franzen."
posted by bartleby at 4:13 PM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


You're right. But if your boss is not willing to concede then this goes beyond the rules of grammar and becomes a political matter. Maybe you can find another way to write the sentence that sidesteps the issue and allows everyone to save face.
posted by Jeff Howard at 6:04 PM on February 9, 2011


The subject is actually an implied "you."

(You) [subject] let [verb] us [indirect object] read [infinitive, and direct object] Freedom [object of the infinitive].


That's not accurate. "Let's" is the imperative mood. There's no dummy subject implied that is keeping us from doing the thing.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:13 PM on February 9, 2011


And obviously I meant "object" above when I wrote "subject". Freedom is the subject the sentence is about, but the subject of the sentence is "us" who are reading the object of the sentence, Freedom.

Words are hard.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:15 PM on February 9, 2011


You know, I can sort of see this working in a very colloquial way, or at least see what sense your boss is going for. Consider these two sentence:
"I'm going anywhere but here."

"I'm going, anywhere but here."
The first seems firmer, more direct. A put-your-foot-down ultimatum. "My destination is anywhere but here."

The second seems more... terse? Informal? More like an afterthought. "I'm going now, and the place that I'm going doesn't matter as long as it's not here."

They convey different senses like that, at least to me. You get a similar connotation if you punctuate it like so:
"I'm going... anywhere but here."
"I'm going; anywhere but here."
"I'm going. Anywhere but here."
The Franzen example feels similar. The non-comma one is a matter-of-fact statement: "Let's read this." But the second one seems more disconnected: "Let's read (in general)... by the way, this is what I want us to read."

I think it sounds that way because "Let's read" can stand alone as it's own sentence (kind of like "I'm going" from my first example), with the book title part acting almost like an appositive, clarifying the initial statement. If it were a sentence like "Let's see, a movie," then it couldn't work the same way, since people don't normally say "Let's see" as a standalone sentence.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:13 PM on February 9, 2011


I agree with those who think your boss might be thinking of "Let's read Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen." I can see an argument for that comma; it's the same argument that makes "He was survived by his wife Phyllis" wrong and "He was survived by his wife, Phyllis" right.
posted by troywestfield at 9:28 AM on February 10, 2011


That's not accurate. "Let's" is the imperative mood.
...the subject of the sentence is "us" who are reading the object of the sentence, Freedom.


The mood is irrelevant. "Let's" is exactly parallel to this:
"Let me sing." In which case (You) is the subject, "let" is the verb, "me" is the indirect object (thus objective case) and "sing" is an infinitive direct object (with an implied "to").

If "us" is the subject, it would be in the subjective case, but it's not. And that's not just a colloquialism, it's perfectly fine grammar (as in, "Allow me to pass.")
posted by torticat at 11:01 AM on February 10, 2011


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