Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

Related Post Roulette

53 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Is this a manifesto?Report

  2. Avatar Rose says:

    Thank you for this. I have comma problems. Nice to have the straight dope.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I use commas where I want the reader to imagine that I would stop for a beat. I use elipses where I want the reader to imagine that I would stop for a breath.

    It’s not syntax: It’s stage direction.Report

  4. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I guess you are inviting responses from the commatariat,

    Are you afraid of losing your position at Cato for this bold endorsement of commanism?

    What does a dictatorship of the Oxfordiat look like?

    Thank you, I will be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your waiter.Report

  5. Avatar Chris says:

    I assume this is obligatory:


  6. Avatar zic says:

    comma comma comma com coma.

    Comma usage is, I think, a personal reflection of one’s writing style. Sometimes, without knowing why, we use them to syncopate what we say, to put breath — to breath life — into our writing. Commas can transform the written word into the spoken when they help the reader hear your voice. They pace the flow, the rock creating eddies in the stream. But, sometimes, they can, get in the way, diverting the stream of communication to some place we don’t intend it to flow and sometimes their lack confuses the reader and discourage them from continuing to read.

    Without the comma, and the semicolon and em-dash, too, it would be impossible to write run-on sentences; something my high-school English teacher, Miss Larrabee, tried to discourage — rather unsuccessfully, in my case — for I recall the day I took a stack of books to her, all from her recommended reading list, and pointed out the a few the many run-on sentences running through their pages; and to which she replied, “When you can write as well, you too, can use run-on sentence without having your papers covered in red ink and points taken from your grade; but since that day had not arrived, and I very much doubt it ever will, you will learn to refrain from writing run-on sentences, or you will see red in your grade.” She failed to break the habit, and I continued to run on, thanks to the humble comma.

    There’s nothing like a little Strunk and White to shine light on the comma. Or Miss Larrabee, of whom I still live in fear. And this fine essay, Jason, thank you. Though words like ‘apositive’ still leave me quivering with ignorance and fear that she’s got that damned red pen ready to scour the urge to write from my soul.Report

  7. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    My gig working for a state legislative committee, where I wrote amendments to amendments to committee reports, ruined my sense of punctuation. After a while one got over the inherent wrongness of finishing a line with something like this: ,”;”.””.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      That’s why reading laws, as they appear on the books, gives me the heebeejeebees, too.

      Is there an actual reason for that craziness?Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        Well, at one point there was. Amendments and committee reports are instructions that tell the people who enroll changes how to modify a bill. Things are going to get weird here, so I’ll use >In document A, page B, line C, strike “Text” and substitute “Replacement text”.,”.,”;<. A second committee isn't allowed to modify the bill because there may be no official document where the first committee's changes have been enrolled; they can only modify the first committee's report. Every time a report gets modified, there's the opportunity to nest the quotes and pick up some more punctuation at the end of a string. On the good side, such as it is, back in the days before data bases and word processors, the rules made it possible to (a) reconstruct the language of the bill at every point in the process if necessary and (b) identify which committee had made every change to the language.

        I worked for the budget and appropriations committees. We got the bills last, and were writing modifications to reports that might have been changed multiple times already — so quotes and other punctuation nested three or four levels deep. My previous career involved a variety of programming languages, so arbitrary punctuation and formatting rules didn’t bother me. By my third session, I was one of the go-to people for the question, “Did I get the punctuation in this report and/or amendment right?”

        IMO, there is no organization as hidebound and reluctant to change procedures as a state legislature :^)Report

  8. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Nice bit of work. Too often, such advice comes across as Grammar Nazism. This wasn’t

    I have my own thoughts on the subject. Read a sentence aloud, work out where you’d put in a breath and don’t hesitate to put a comma there.

    The bits about Angus Burgin: without presuming to correct you, when I’m confronted with someone’s name in the context of their honorifics, I find out how they describe themselves in their LinkedIn or on their university CV.

    Dr. Angus Burgin, Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University will speak on the topic of free markets during the Great Depression tomorrow night at 9 PM at Gilman Hall.

    Always err on the side of correctness with anyone’s titles. Easy enough to get right and embarrassing to get wrong.

    I get the point you’re trying to make in Angus Burgin, an intellectual historian, has written a fascinating book about F.A. Hayek. Trouble is, the descriptive phrase wants to be its own sentence. Furthermore, the sentence reads tighter by saying Angus Burgin has written a fascinating book about F.A. Hayek. Keep the verb and object as close as possible. For some reason, however true it might be to say “Angus Burgin is an intellectual historian” complimenting the person and not the thing always reads as fulsome panegyric. But were I to say:

    “Angus Burgin has written a new book, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression, now available from Harvard University Press, a fascinating intellectual history of how free market thinkers have adapted to global economic crises.”

    … I haven’t so much created a run-on sentence as made every comma chunk work on its own behalf.Report

  9. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Excellent Jason. This was a fun read. And informative too. I have comma problems. I’m all over the map. The reason, I think, is that I’m an inherently lazy writer. I don’t like the process, embodying a permutation of the old maxim that I didn’t have enough time to write something shorter. So, I resort to … short cuts… that help make the point more succinctly – oftentimes in adroitly! – with a minimum of effort. And for some reason, that means far too many commas. (But, I have been getting better at this, lately, somewhat, if, for no other reason, than eliminating key strokes.)

    Your prose is a marvel to me. As is Blaise P’s, Tod’s, and James Hanley’s. Lots of people at this sight, actually. It’s clean, clear, precise, a joy to read.Report

  10. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    A high school English teacher likened commas to speedbumps. If given the choice I prefer to avoid using them, but sometimes I’ll sprinkle them liberally on my prose if I think something I’ve written is worth slowing down to take notice of.Report

  11. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    If your audience doesn’t live in the world of endowed chairs

    The Harry C. Black Professor of History, Philip Morgan, has written…

    is superior to

    Harry C. Black Professor of History Philip Morgan has written…

    because it doesn’t make the reader stop in mid-sentence to recalibrate “Harry C. Black'”‘s role as title rather than dude.Report

    • Avatar Glyph says:

      It gets even more confusing if he is this guy.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      Interesting. I was taught the rule wherein the only title preceding a given name were either current military rank or the honorifics Dr. and Rev. etcetera. All other titles followed the given name.

      Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, CVO, OBE, FRGS.
      Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, Commander U.S. Army V Corps.
      Jeffrey R. Immelt, CEO of General Electric Company.

      It’s been my observation most people with a Ph.D. don’t use the “Dr.” title regularly. Perhaps that’s because it’s often conflated with physicians, though Lord knows there are plenty of MDs with Ph.Ds.

      Stephen William Hawking, CH, CBE, FRS, FRSA, former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. BA (Hons.) Oxon. Ph.D. Cantab. In this case, the preceding Sir seems superfluous. The Lucasian Professor would always follow his titles in my ordering of things.

      Drew Gilpin Faust, 28th president of Harvard University and Lincoln Professor of History in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Somehow the honorific “Dr.” seems a bit fussy. I’d prefer to write “Dr. Faust” for she does indeed have a Ph.D. — but she’s well-enough known under her own name as a published author.

      Perhaps you’ve seen otherwise. Maybe I’ve been doing it wrong all these years, heh.Report

  12. Avatar Mike Schilling says:


    Angus Burgin, an intellectual historian has written a fascinating book about F.A. Hayek.

    is an incomplete sentence. It ‘s missing a required modifier:

    Angus Burgin, an intellectual historian has written a fascinating book about F.A. Hayek (it’s not just a libertarian wank-fest. Honestly!).Report