A comma, doctor!

From a letter to the editor (written 4/24) in the NYT today, from Peter Balakian (a professor of the humanities at Colgate University) of Hamilton NY, on “Turks and Armenians” (the crucial piece is boldfaced):

… For Turkey to deal with this history in an ethical way, it must acknowledge the consensus on the historical record that is detailed in the open letter from the International Association of Genocide Scholars to Prime Minister Erdogan in June 2005.

The association notes that the intended mass killing of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish government constitutes genocide in every aspect of the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention. It also notes that Raphael Lemkin, a legal scholar, was the first to apply the term “genocide” to the extermination of the Armenians, in the 1940s

This says that Lemkin was the first to use the term for the extermination of the Armenians and suggests that it had been used previously for other exterminations: the PP to the extermination of the Armenians is functioning as a restrictive modifier of the VP apply the term “genocide”. But that’s almost surely not what Balakian intended; certainly, it’s not what he should have intended, since the OED tells us that Lemkin’s use of “genocide” is in fact the first recorded use of the term.

That is, Balakian’s letter should have had a nonrestrictive modifier:

(a) … the first to apply the term “genocide”, to the extermination of the Armenians, in the 1940s


(b) … the first to apply the term “genocide”– to the extermination of the Armenians, in the 1940s

or, even clearer,

(c) … the first to apply the term “genocide”; he used it for the extermination of the Armenians, in the 1940s…

The first of these uses a comma, as in other cases of nonrestrictive (vs. restrictive) modification. Why was there no comma in Balakian’s letter?

Possibly because of a hostility to commas that you can find in many pieces of usage advice: Omit Unnecessary Punctuation, or something like that. But some commas are in fact necessary (and others are stylistic options).

(The comma is missing on-line as well as in the print edition, by the way.)

Now, either Balakian chose not to use a comma — punctuational economy! — or he used one but it was removed by an editor. In any case, what appeared in the Times was actively misleading.

3 Responses to “A comma, doctor!”

  1. eric zwicky Says:

    let’s eat grandma!

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Moderately famous as a joke. Such glaringly missing commas can occasionally be seen in actual writing, though not, in my experience, in the writing of practiced writers like Balakian (which is why I mentioned his academic credentials).

  2. Allusions, playful variations, snowclones, themes, subjects, memes, tropes, genres | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] recently posted (for the second time, on April 29th, here with reference to restrictive vs. non-restrictive modification  in a letter to the editor in […]

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