March 24, 2011
Weekly Language Usage Tips: though/although & dependent and independent clauses
Remember last week, when we were talking about commas, and I said, “And worse, once upon a time, someone came up with the idea that commas indicate pauses, and worse still, it stuck. First things first, commas are not pauses!”
Well, I’m sticking to my guns that commas are not pauses; however, one astute reader was able to explain why someone “came up with the idea that commas indicate pauses,” and the story is fascinating. Here is what the reader had to say:
I have not a quibble with your diatribe concerning commas, but I remember something from my English Lit. course that has some bearing on the history of their use.
The use of a comma for a slight pause comes from playwrights who wrote to specify how the actors should deliver their written words. It predates Shakespeare, but I remember his use of punctuation in that manner led to much confusion when printers would later publish his folios and re-punctuate (there is a famous example of a rather long monologue from King Lear where they took out all the punctuation except for one period at the very end).
In particular, Shakespeare would use a string of commas to evoke rising emotional intensity, as in:
No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’it come no more;
Never, never, never, never, never.
Since the bard was considered the gold standard of English speech by so many, it is easy to see where some of these abuses originate.
I’ve looked into it a bit, and while, there are conflicting claims about whether punctuation was used at all with any consistency back in the Elizabethan age, it is clear that there were not directors to lead actors to deliver lines in a particular way, so dramatists were forced to use punctuation to let the actors know how the line was to be expressed.
Fascinating. My thanks to the reader for sharing this explanation with me. It’s true that we can learn something new everyday and that makes us really lucky. But, that being said, unless you are an Elizabethan playwright, DON’T use commas as pauses.
Another reader reminded me about our goal of writing in a simple, clear style vis a vis our discussion of ‘in conjunction with.’ He wrote:
Maybe it’s just me but I almost always feel that in conjunction with can be replaced with with or and.
We will use the new data, in conjunction with the data from our ongoing study…
We will use the new data with the data from our ongoing study…
We will use the new data and the data from our ongoing study…
I am in complete agreement. It’s always better to simplify.
Tip 1: Though or although
Though patients may not be more likely to increase their medications when directed by their physician, in previous work, we have found that they change their medication dose when a family member reinforces the physician’s directive.
Last week, I used this sentence that I found in someone’s grant proposal to illustrate the use of commas to separate the parenthetical element (‘in previous work’) from the rest of the sentence. Unfortunately, when I first read this sentence, I neglected to note that the author made a bit of an unfortunate word choice. I say ‘a bit’ because it is not a fatal misjudgment. ‘Though’ and ‘although’ mean the same and, for the most part, can be used interchangeably. ‘Though’; however, is considered less formal than ‘although’ and should be saved for informal writing and conversation. Since we consider grant proposal writing a form of formal writing, the author should have used although in his sentence:
Although patients may not be more likely to increase their medications when directed by their physician, in previous work, we have found that they change their medication dose when a family member reinforces the physician’s directive.
Tip 2: Free standing dependent clauses
A reader writes:
From the NYT Book Review, Sunday March 6:
Because we readily see others as human, we need reminding that our enemies are supposedly different. Which often works, because we also readily see others as not human. Smith has explored the nature of those conceptual boxes “human” and “not human.”
Notice the dependent clause used as a sentence. I noticed another example in the Times this week. I realize that this is a literary flourish. But is it now—or is it becoming—accepted English?
You all remember what independent and dependent clauses are, right? I thought so. Before, I answer this reader’s question, I’ll remind you briefly about these clauses, and then you never have to think about the terms again (until they come up in a wlut down the road, that is).
An independent clause has both a subject and a verb, expresses a complete thought, and can stand on its own as a sentence.
A dependent clause, also known as a subordinate clause, has both a subject and a verb; however, it doesn’t express a complete thought and cannot stand on its own as a sentence. In the reader’s example, this is the dependent clause:
Which often works, because we also readily see others as not human.
It has a subject (‘we’) and a verb ( ‘works’ and ‘see’) but, as you can see, it is not a complete sentence. What makes it dependent is the use of the word ‘which’ at the beginning of the sentence. “Which’ calls for a referent. If we said, instead,
This strategy often works because we also readily see others as not human.
then, we have a complete sentence or an independent clause.
Okay, class over. Back to the reader’s question–is the dependent clause standing alone acceptable as standard English?
My instinct is just to say ‘NO,” but that really is too easy. As we know language use is much nuanced. I will say this: Never use a dependent clause standing alone in our formal, scientific writing. It is NEVER acceptable in that context.
That being said, I would admit that it is occasionally reasonable to use this for dramatic or other effect. There are instances when a dependent clause helps to make a point. So, in moderation and to emphasize a particular point, go ahead. But NEVER in formal or scientific writing!