Sunday, January 10, 2010

Usage questions, Chicago style

The Chicago Manual of Style's monthly Q&A -- free to all, unlike the online stylebook itself -- can be pretty editor-geeky, all indexing minutiae, en dashes, and footnote options. But CMOS gets some everyday usage questions, too, and the bulletin's editor, Carol Fisher Saller, makes the most of them. A couple (excerpted) from the latest number:

Q.  I have been tutored that because is used for instances of cause/effect and that since is for time. However, one of my authors is a scholar who contends that "since denotes a state of being based on a relationship ... Because implies causality."
A. You and your author seem to be following variations on an old superstition ... Some writers erroneously believe that the word relates exclusively to time. But the causal since was a part of the English language before Chaucer wrote in the fourteenth century.
Q. Is it necessary to use a comma after words like next, then, after that, last, and finally when they are the beginning of a sentence? I am a lower-school teacher and need to clarify this.
A. Punctuation is not so simple that you can make a rule that a comma “always” follows a given word or phrase. Commas depend on syntax as well as pacing, tone, and personal preference ...Please don’t teach your students punctuation until you understand this.

Q. In a sentence, a colon should always be preceded by an independent clause. Why doesn’t the Chicago Manual state this explicitly?
A. Because we’re a bunch of spineless and ineffectual prevaricators -- or because there are times when a colon need not be preceded by an independent clause? A case in point: this one.

Read the January and December editions (and sign up for the e-mail) here.


Unknown said...

"Please don’t teach your students punctuation until you understand this."

Yowch. Not that I necessarily disagree, but I wonder if maybe it's just a tad unreasonable to expect English teachers at all levels to be experts who can teach their students such a nuanced approach to punctuation.

It's probably not very helpful to tell a young student, "Well, sometimes you need a comma, and sometimes you don't. You just have to trust your ear." Sometimes it's best to teach simple, black-and-white rules before trying to teach all the shades of grey.

Anonymous said...

As an English teacher myself, my policy is not to teach grammar or punctuation until it is needed, as evidenced by my students' writing. I have them write their own rules after we have discussed and seen several examples of usage. Corpus linguistics is useful for this approach.