Insubordination

S.O.S.

In my high school English classes, I’ve been teaching subordinate clauses, subordinate conjunctions, and complex sentences for years “by the book.”

I just read another writer’s column and I laughed almost until it hurt but for different painful reasons. He placed commas BEFORE subordinate conjunctions in the middle of a sentence! And he did it more than once, so it’s not a typo!

Is this more deterioration of our beloved language???

Please read it and advise. Jump ship? Borrow a life jacket? Surface dive? I was a lifeguard in the ’80s and ’90s … Teaching swimming strokes is a lot more fun than teaching grammar strokes. 🙂

Mrs. Raizy Kaufman, Boro Park

Mordechai Schiller responds:

I’m on thin ice here. I must confess that I am not a grammarian. I’m a lexikibitzer.

But I’m in good company. After E.B. White revised The Elements of Style, he wrote, “I discovered that for all my fine talk I was no match for the parts of speech — I was, in fact, over my depth and in trouble. Not only that, I felt uneasy posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.”

Regarding my colleague’s punctuation, I haven’t read the piece in question, but I have to confess (this is beginning to sound like viduy) that I tend to gently insert commas not by the book, but by ear.

As for “deterioration of the language,” relax. It’s been through worse. To borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, the reports of the death of English are greatly exaggerated.

In all fairness to myself, I could and do look it up. I check stacks of books and articles whenever I write or edit. But my watchword is clarity.

To give an example of what I don’t mean, an essay in the journal English Today said:

“While subordination is defined as ‘a grammatical phenomenon which involves an arrangement of two or more units [ … ] that are in an unequal relationship’ (Aarts, 2011: 179), the term insubordination (Evans, 2007) designates instances of originally subordinate clauses lacking the corresponding main clause which have developed into new constructions that are considered main clauses in themselves. Examples of conditional subordination with if.”

If that mouthful leaves you gasping for breath, try William Safire’s advice in How Not to Write; The Essential Misrules of Grammar, which expands on his popular list of “fumblerules”:

“Avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read.”

Safire explained that a run-on is an incorrect joining of sentences.

“One wrong method is fusion, the simple jamming together of two complete, stand-alone thoughts, as in our fumblerule.” And don’t think it’s OK because William Faulkner and James Joyce did it. They “got away with it you are not them I am not them either.”

Safire offered several solutions. As a recovering advertising copywriter who tactically used machine-gun blasts of short sentences to rivet attention, I have to admit favoring his suggestion to avoid subordinating clauses altogether. We’re beset by enough complexes, why add complex sentences to our worries? Why not go back to the old advice to stick to one thought per sentence?

As Safire put it, “Instead of linking, decouple. Use a period. Be choppy. Sometimes that’s a strong way to write. Just don’t do it too often or for too long. It makes the reader think you think he’s a dope.”