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The comma: common but crucial

Preventive Gerontologist, Dr. Arnold Bretsky, recommends this …

That’s the beginning of a sentence from a newspaper advertorial urging people to use a certain brain supplement. Perhaps the person who wrote it ought to practice what he or she preaches. Or take a course in English grammar. Of course, to err is human. However, to err over and over, which happens in this piece, is ignorance. It may be bliss, but it ain’t happenstance.

What’s wrong with that sentence fragment? Let’s break it down.

kid with comma

Deconstruction

Preventive Gerontologist is the doctor’s title. Well, not exactly – more like a description. It’s the name of the medical specialty he practices. But the same punctuation principle that applies to his title, which is Dr., or Doctor spelled out, applies to the description.

Punctuation is one of the errors here. The other is capitalization: Dr. is a title and thus capitalized, while Gerontologist is merely the noun for the kind of doctor and thus not capitalized. But our primary concern in this instance is the comma, or rather, the commas. There should be none.


Comma confusion

The inappropriate comma prevails throughout the ad. However, there’s a bit of inconsistency, because one sentence gets it right: Professional speaker Sylvia … No comma after speaker because, as a noun describing Sylvia, it serves the same function as a title. Everybody knows (at least I hope so) that one wouldn’t write: President, Barack Obama … It’s just President Barack Obama … No comma.

However, if the definite article the precedes president, commas setting off his name are needed: The president, Barack Obama, said he would go it alone if Republicans in the House refused to cooperate. Here, the first comma indicates a pause to identify who the president is. The unwritten words who is are understood: The president, who is Barack Obama, said he would go it alone …

The identical situation exists in the opening example: Preventive Gerontologist, Dr. Arnold Bretsky, recommends this … There is no reason for inserting commas here.


Comma correctness


Here we go again

The error is repeated later in the brain supplement ad, except this one is more complicated: Alternative medicine pioneer, and retired medical school professor, Dr. Robert Heller, personally uses and recommends the formula. Is that a disjointed sentence, or what? This is more than a problem with commas. So many identifying words precede the man’s name that the reader becomes impatient to know who the guy is. That sentence can be compared with a story in which the teller is making a point but takes forever to get to it. Here’s a much better construction: Alternative medical pioneer Dr. Robert Heller, a retired medical school professor, personally uses … Or: Dr. Robert Heller, a retired medical school professor and alternative medical pioneer, personally uses …

Aside from the awkwardness of too many identifiers preceding the doctor’s name is the inappropriate use of commas. If the syntax is left as it is, at least the commas should be removed, which Dr. Heller probably would be happy to do with his scalpel: Alternative medicine pioneer and retired medical school professor Dr. Robert Heller personally uses … However, if the indefinite article an is inserted at the beginning of the description, the commas are appropriate: An alternative medicine pioneer and retired medical school professor, Dr. Robert Heller, personally uses … The comma after professor indicates a pause with the unwritten but understood words, who is: An alternative medicine pioneer and retired medical school professor, who is …

Agreed

Two paragraphs later, the same problem occurs: Head and neck surgeon and psychologist, Paul Nemiroff, … A series of certifications follows before the verb is reached, but at least the commas thereafter are appropriate: … MD, FACS, agrees, adding, “It is … Without the comma after agrees, the writer would have FACS agreeing instead of the psychologist: FACS agrees.

The impostor

comma abuse

A few paragraphs later, a comma before the description of the person, but not after it, results in a sentence that reads like two sentences with the first part abandoned: Crossword puzzle fanatic, Bobby D from western Nevada can’t say enough about his improved memory. It’s as if the writer began with a thought, Crossword puzzle fanatic, then changed his mind and went on to another idea, Bobby D from western Nevada can’t say enough about his improved memory. Had the comma not intervened, the sentence would have read smoothly and clearly: Crossword puzzle fanatic Bobby D from western Nevada can’t …


The critical comma

The comma: so tiny, yet so important for clear communication.

#capitalization #DrRobertHeller #syntax #punctuation #indefiitearticle #DrPaulNemiroff #definitearticle #comma

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