By Gary McCarty
Bill and Hillary may have complained of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” but I have a better and more aptly named conspiracy theory–the “vast K-12 bad English ‘don’t-bother-mastering-it-before-teaching-it’ conspiracy.”
This conspiracy dates back I’m not sure how long, but at least to my ancient childhood. To carbon date it from the trunks of all those dead trees that became the paper that in turn allowed K-12 students to mislearn English grammar rules, let’s say it originated after WWII with the Baby Boom (more likely when the Baby Boomers, facing the draft in the 1960s and 1970s, had to come up with a different set of values from their parents, and thus was born relativism–but no time for that now).
Whatever its origins, I’m afraid it’s still going strong. Just the other night we were examining an essay in one of my university communications classes when an otherwise bright student blurted out, “You can’t start a sentence with because!”
I asked calmly, “Why not?” while already knowing the answer (there’s certainly no rule against staring with because) and not expecting one from the student.
The real answer is that, somewhere in the collective brilliance of those who teach K-12 English, an ersatz rule got stuck in some involuntary, autonomous reflex area of their brains dedicated to butchering the English language through education.
“Never start a sentence with because (when, if, and so on)” became a holy grail, a mantra, an unquestionable “truth.”
This lengthy (and rambling) introduction is just my way of getting to my topic–commas.
Besides blatantly wrong and English-killing rules such as the one saying you can’t start a sentence with because, our K-12 English educators have done one bang-up job on teaching comma usage as well. Literally, the only rule that to this day sticks in my head from what I was taught about comma usage is that ubiquitous saying, “Whenever you need a pause, use a comma.”
True, commas can indicate a pause, as can semi-colons, periods, new sentences, new paragraphs and you name it. Armed with so little in the way of actual comma usage instruction, students forever after just throw the darn things in when they want to indicate a pause. Problem is, a pause for many of these students evidently means whenever a new element appears in a sentence.
This made-up example is not far from many of the sentences I’ve read from students who finished high school and are now embarking upon college: “In the morning, my brother Joseph, took the bus, to work, in the rain.”
Notice how most of the discrete elements in the sentence (prepositional phrase, subject, verb, object, prepositional phrase) have been separated by commas. In truth, you don’t need a single comma in this sentence!
This writer suffers from comma-rhea, or uncontrollable comma usage. The opposite extreme also exsits, called comma-phobia, which renders the writer completely incapable of adding a comma because she or he can’t decide if it belongs and if so, where.
There are indeed rules for commas regarding opening phrases and clauses in sentences (use them always with clauses and with phrases of five or more words), regarding dates and cities (you must use a comma after the year and after the state or country–not just after the city or day), and regarding series (to separate the elements within).
I haven’t got the time to explain all the comma rules here, but they’re available through various Web resources (or wait for my long-gestating book, Grammar Sucks).
My point is that we need to do some English grammar shock treatment on those teachers who insist on perpetrating facile but misleading and often-erroneous rules to write by.
Such as “never end a sentence with a preposition” (see preceding sentence) or use fragments in writing (like this one).