The Comma Doctrine


“But with the governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition towards the United States.”

-President James Monroe, seventh annual State of the Union address.  AKA “The Monroe Doctrine”, authored by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams.

I happened to stop by our fifth President’s former home today, and was struck by this extreme use of commas in his most permanent speech.  Little Adams strung sixty-four words together and separated them with six commas to leave us with this mega-sentence that still defines a certain approach to foreign policy.

This would never fly in on the NYT Op-Ed page or in any high school essay.  How many clauses can you stuff in behind your next period?  Two seems like the limit after which we need to think about a new sentence.  When communication is the absolute priority, one may be more sensible.


Just in Case

5.16 Function of Case

Case denotes the relationship between a noun and pronoun and other words in a sentence”

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition

Do they still teach English noun case in secondary school anymore?  Did they ever?  I didn’t hear anything about it back in my JanSport-schlepping days.  I guess it’s low on anyone’s list of important grammar since we don’t decline our nouns.  The different cases look and sound the same:

  • “The kumquat fell from Porfiro’s hand.”
  • “Porfiro stepped on the kumquat.”
  • “Porfiro’s kumquat was bruised repeatedly.”

Nominative, objective, genitive–it’s the same friggin’ kumquat.  I have yet to see anyone mess with the ablative and accusative cases in English, but I have a hunch doing so wouldn’t change anything about the noun being manipulated.

So I’m left thinking case is a redundant idea.  There doesn’t seem to be a difference between saying a noun is “in the nominative case” and saying it “is the subject”.  A noun “in the objective case” “is the object”.   Granted “possessive” doesn’t cover every nuance of the genitive case, but this seems like a weak thread from which to hang a whole category of grammar rules.

What do we lose by forgetting about noun case altogether?


Stamp or Stomp?

stamp, stomp Both are acceptable, but  stamp is preferred.”

-AP Stylebook, 39th Edition

I wonder why “stamp” is preferred.  Isn’t “stomp” more common in both literal and figurative usage, excluding the way elephants walk?  Kevin Love didn’t get suspended for “stamping” on Luis Scola.   When I worked as a winemaker, no one ever blithely asked me how the “grape-stamping” was going.

As long as “stomp” exists at all, it seems like the better choice since “stamp” also refers to those rubber things librarians use and the sticky little squares that are about to become obsolete when the USPS goes under.  We may as well disambiguate and give “the powerful descent of a foot” exclusively to “stomp”.

Presumably “stomp” is newer in the language and oozed out of some dialect.  If so, AP’s preference of “stamp” is a weakening link to the past.