A WORD PLEASE | JUNE CASAGRANDE

To comma or not to comma

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it seems, is a little obsessive about commas. According to press reports, he’s been sending out directives to staff that they should follow certain strict guidelines. Here’s one example of incorrect comma use he sent to staffers.

 “The administration is committed to achieving a lasting and comprehensive peace agreement, and remains optimistic that progress can be made.”

 Pompeo said that’s an error because there should be “no comma when single subject with compound predicate.”

 I found Pompeo’s choice a little odd. So I asked my editor friends on Twitter what they thought. Their answers varied, with some supporting Pompeo’s choice, others not.

 The Grammar Geek replied: “I would remove that comma but wouldn’t put up a fight if the author preferred leaving it in.”

 My friend Karen Conlin replied to Grammar Geek: “Same. Not a hill I would die on.”

 And in those few simple words, Conlin nailed what had been nagging at me: Why fuss over this particular comma issue? Why plant your flag on that hill?

 It’s true that, in general, you shouldn’t put a comma before a conjunction in a compound predicate. A compound predicate means two or more verbs shared by the same subject: “Bob took a shower and walked the dog.” There’s no comma after “shower” because you don’t need one to separate it from “walked the dog.” Bob is doing both and the rules say that, in such cases, no comma.

 If the second verb had its own subject, that would be different. “Bob took a shower, and he walked the dog.” When we insert “he” we create a complete clause: “he walked.” Complete clauses have a different rule: Use a comma before an “and” that connects them. But there’s an exception. “If the clauses are very short and closely connected, the comma may be omitted,” the Chicago Manual of Style advises. In other words, if you didn’t like that comma in “Bob took a shower, and he walked the dog,” you can chuck it out. I would.

 But that’s not how Pompeo’s sentence worked. In “The administration is committed to achieving a lasting and comprehensive peace agreement, and remains …” that second verb is sharing the subject, “the administration,” with the first verb, “is.” If they had just squeezed in the word “it” before “remains,” the rules of independent clauses would apply. But they didn’t, so no comma.

 In other words, Pompeo has a point. The comma he says is wrong does seem to defy the rules for compound predicates.

 But here’s the thing (that you knew was coming): It’s not that simple. Pompeo’s own favorite rule book, the Chicago Manual of Style, explains the matter this way: “A comma is not normally used between the parts of a compound predicate. … A comma may occasionally be needed, however, to prevent a misreading.”

 And here’s the advice with which Chicago begins its whole section on commas: “Effective use of the comma involves good judgment, with ease of reading the end in view.”

 In other words, this comma rule isn’t hard-and-fast.

 Now here’s the Associated Press Stylebook: “Clarity is the biggest rule. … If omitting a comma could lead to confusion or misinterpretation, then use the comma.” For example, AP would say not to use a comma in “Their sandwich offerings include turkey, tuna and ham.” But when an extra “and” make things too weird, AP says, throw in another comma: “Their sandwich offerings include turkey, tuna, and peanut butter and jelly.”

 Some editors on Twitter argued that the comma in Pompeo’s sentence aids understanding, especially because the second verb, “remains,” is also a noun, which could throw the reader off kilter. For this editor, it’s a tossup. So I would probably stick with the writer’s first instinct.

 Don’t use a comma in a compound predicate … unless you think it makes the sentence better. Either way, don’t get too pushy about it. This is not a hill you want to die on.

 -- 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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