Ask the Grammarian: 'Too' Many Commas, Sentence Fragments, and Rhetoric

First there was Ask the Lit Coach, with Erin Reel. Then came Ask the Agent, with Bree Ogden. Now, LitReactor proudly presents: Ask the Grammarian, with the one and only, Taylor Houston. You've got questions about grammar and usage, she's got answers. Have at you!


First of all, thank you to everyone that submitted questions. Let’s get started:

‘Too’ many commas?

This first question comes from Marie Crosswell:

When do you use a comma before "too" at the end of a sentence and when is it unnecessary?
 

I seem to remember having it drilled into my head in grade school English classes that when too was being used to mean also, there was ALWAYS a comma before the word if it came at the end of a sentence, and there were ALWAYS commas before and after it if it appeared in the middle of a sentence. Like so:

I, too, have taken up smoking.

I have taken up smoking, too.

Turns out, I can use commas like this, but I don’t have to. There is no rule that states I have to use commas to set off the word too when used to mean also in a sentence. Similarly, there is no rule that says I can’t either. The choice, it appears, is stylistic. If you want your sentence to read smoothly, forget the comma. For instance:

My job is so stressful that I have been drinking a lot, and I have taken up smoking too.

If you want to create emphasis, use the comma to add a little pause to make sure the reader realizes the impact that the too is making on the meaning of the sentence.

Is that a pack of cigarettes I see in your pocket, Bob? I, too, have taken up smoking.

The Chicago Manual of Style also says that commas can be used when you want to signal an abrupt change of thought:

Shirley knew she didn’t want to mow grass for the rest of her career, but she knew, too, that she never wanted to sit in a cubicle either.

Here’s is what grammar blogger/writer Bonnie Trenga (via Grammar Girl) has to say about it.

There is no right or wrong here. Comma or no comma after “too” is really up to you and the context of the paragraph where the “too” sentence is. If you want to emphasize your thought, you can add the comma to slow the sentence down. If no emphasis is necessary, then no comma is necessary.

So, Marie, it seems the choice is yours.

Sentence. Fragments.

The next question comes from Leif:

Fragmented sentences can be used stylistically. Do you believe there is a point where this becomes confusing or turns off the average reader? How do you feel about using fragments?

Personally, I feel great about using fragments. I use them often, but, being a grammar columnist, I have been scolded more than once by my readers for committing such sins as starting a sentence with the words because or and.  To such criticisms, I typically respond with some snotty comment like, “If you are doing it on purpose, it’s ok.”

That said, fragmented sentences have their place. In creative prose, a limited number of fragmented sentences carefully balanced with complete sentences that vary in length and tone is perfectly acceptable. If you use them, use them deliberately to avoid appearing like you are just too lazy to string together a proper subject+verb combination. And don’t string together a bunch of half-assed sentences littered with periods, exclamation points, and question marks in an attempt to be avant garde or edgy. It just. Looks kinda? Stupid! Balance is the key to writing that is interesting to read.

In all other writing—for work, for grants, for strangers, for employment opportunities, etc.—it is best to avoid sentence fragments completely or, at least, keep them to a bare minimum. The reasons for this you listed yourself in your inquiry:

  1. It can be confusing. If you are trying to win a job by writing a proposal to a potential client, you want to be as clear as possible. If you are trying to write a training manual, you want to be as clear as possible. If you are writing a cover letter for a job, you want to be as clear as possible. When writing to impress or communicate, you want to avoid unconventional writing.
  2. You don’t know your audience. You called it “the average reader” which I might change to “the unknown reader.” In most cases, you should have some idea who is reading your work—a potential employer, a coworker on your team, your political constituency (or that of your opponent), a reader of grammar articles on a website devoted to articles about writing, your parents, etc.—so you can make educated guesses as to how best to convey your message and write accordingly. If, however, you can't surmise who will be reading your work, it’s best to write as clearly as you can—which means using complete sentences.

If you want to read more about what sentence fragments are, Grammar Girl offers an entertaining primer which you can read here. If you want to read about how to build complete sentences, you can check out my article Clause I Said So: A Refresher Course on Sentence Types.

A little to the left. A little to the right.

Answering these next two questions might land me in a heap of doo-doo, but I do think there is an important issue that underlines each of them.

First, Larry Hill asked:

Why does it seem people on the political Right have a lesser grasp on grammar and the English language? Is this proof that Republicans are indeed less intelligent than the rest of their fellow humans?

Asker Leif from part two of this article had a similarly themed question:

How come people on the left use adverbs more than they should? Are they on the effeminate side when compared to average humans or are they really really interested?

While I can’t comment as to whether or not “Republicans have a lesser grasp of the English language,” nor can I comment as to whether left-leaners’ alleged abuse of adverbs means they are “effeminate” (mainly because that is preposterous and I think Leif is being facetious), I can say that both questions point to the most important thing any writer should keep in mind when stringing words together—RHETORIC. Rhetoric makes the world go ‘round. Every ad, every song, every story, every purveyor of news or information, every politician, every teacher, every business mogul, every salesperson, EVERYONE uses rhetoric to communicate a message.

Merriam-Webster defines rhetoric as

1: the art of speaking or writing effectively: as

a: the study of principles and rules of composition formulated by critics of ancient times

b: the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion

2:         a: skill in the effective use of speech

b: a type or mode of language or speech; also: insincere or grandiloquent language

3: verbal communication : discourse

The key word you might pay attention to here is “persuasion.” Not all rhetoric is meant to be pompous or insincere, but it is meant to be persuasive. Properly used rhetorical devices in writing (or speech) can be used to persuade the reader to see the writer’s (or speaker’s) point (and, hopefully, agree with that point). Furthermore, it helps if you tailor your message to your intended audience. Politicians, advertisers, media sources, evangelical preachers, kindergarten teachers, and anyone trying to get a message across is going to use language that best suits its intended audience.

Right, left, middle, moderate, north, south, east, west, progressive, regressive, inside out, upside down—rhetoric is something we all should pay attention to. It is NOT always WHAT is being said that makes the most impact on a reader, but HOW it is being said. Any entity in the business of convincing people to do or think anything (see media, advertising, business, politics, etc.) knows this to be true and use all the rhetorical devices in their power to convey the message INSIDE the message.


Got a question for me (preferably a question that is actually about grammar or usage)? You’ll get another chance next month! Submit your question via email to Taylor@litreactor.com.

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Comments

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore August 19, 2013 - 9:06am

What I find more troubling is when politicians (see also: corporations and military) use passive as a way to avoid ascribing blame to a subject, or even identifying one.

"Mistakes were made."

"That is being looked into."

"Negotiations have been ongoing."

eirikodin's picture
eirikodin from Auburn, NY is reading Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler August 19, 2013 - 2:32pm

Thanks for the advice on the fragments.  Just so you know I was without a doubt being a smartass and lacked seriousness with that comment.  His comment just screamed for a response to it.  

Thanks

Leif