writing

Today in How Comma Placement Changes Meaning

Earlier this morning I read a short sentence in a story about last night’s Presidential debate, the one where a woman was yelled at by a sentient circus peanut for 90 minutes. Here’s a passage from the story that includes the sentence in question, with that specific one bolded.

The debate was a collision between Donald Trump’s politics of dominance and Hillary Clinton’s politics of preparation.

Clinton’s politics of preparation won.

Trump did his best to be fair. He interrupted Clinton 25 times in the debate’s first 26 minutes. He talked over both her and moderator Lester Holt with ease. But the show of dominance quickly ran into a problem: Trump would shout over his interlocutors only to prove he had nothing to say.

What the writer was meaning to say was that Trump did his best in the debate, meaning he played to his strengths as a bully with no real policy thoughts of his own, only the internal conviction that he could do better, like the guy who looks at a Jackson Pollack and says “Hell, I could do that” with no real supporting evidence. But in order to make that point there needs to be a comma between “best” and “to.” So the sentence should read:

“Trump did his best, to be fair.”

By writing “Donald Trump did his best to be fair” what the writer is instead saying – unintentionally, given the surrounding context of the story – that Trump emphasized fairness and did his best to rise to a standard of being fair during the debate. Adding the comma, though, would have made it clear that the “to be fair” is a modifying clause, changing or clarifying the meaning of the subject of the sentence.

I have a reputation for being hard on commas. Without getting into the whole Oxford Comma debate, they’re too often used (including by me) anytime the writer would take a breath if they were speaking. That creates a choppy reading experience. In many cases, though, they serve important roles in the sentence. I’m not meaning to beat up on Ezra Klein, who’s a fantastic political writer, just pointing out that it’s the kind of mistake anyone can make, especially if your tendency already is to try to minimize overall comma usage.

 

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