The perils of commas

From Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words #785, today:

Ted Brooks saw a New York Times report of 25 April about the parents of Madeleine McCann: “Since their daughter’s disappearance they have traveled to the Vatican for an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, who blessed a photograph of Madeleine, published a book and even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

The unfortunate ambiguity here arises from the multiple functions of the comma — in this case, the function of setting off parentheticals and the function of separating the conjuncts in coordination.

The intended reading has the non-restrictive relative who blessed a photograph of Madeleine as a parenthetical modifier of Pope Benedict XVI, and three coordinate VPs in a complement of perfect have: traveled to the Vatican for an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, published a book, and even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show (so that it’s Madeleine’s parents who did these three things).

In the entertaining alternative reading, the parenthetical modifier of Pope Benedict XVI is a long non-restrictive relative, with three coordinate VPs inside of it: blessed a photograph of Madeleine, published a book, and even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show (so that it’s the Pope who did these three things).

The problem punctuation here is the comma after the word Madeleine, which can be understood either as a flanking comma in parenthetical modification (matching the comma after Pope Benedict XVI) or as the first comma in a series separating conjuncts.

There are easy fixes that use a punctuation mark other than the comma for one of these functions: parentheses for parenthetical modification —

they have traveled to the Vatican for an audience with Pope Benedict XVI (who blessed a photograph of Madeleine), published a book and even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show

or semicolons for conjuncts in series —

they have traveled to the Vatican for an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, who blessed a photograph of Madeleine; published a book; and even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show

or, of course, both —

they have traveled to the Vatican for an audience with Pope Benedict XVI (who blessed a photograph of Madeleine); published a book; and even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show

(And there are also more elaborate fixes, in which the sentence is more substantially recast.)

But to contemplate any of these alternatives, you have to realize that there’s a reading other than the one you intended. That’s hard.

 

2 Responses to “The perils of commas”

  1. the ridger Says:

    “you have to realize that there’s a reading other than the one you intended. That’s hard.”

    That is arguably the hardest thing of all when it comes to editing your own prose.

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