Tuesday morning grammar

More comma issues from the Chronicle today:

The robbery conviction stems from the June 23, 2006 shooting death of Jason Cody Wright, 26, a Livingston native whom police suspect was a cocaine dealer. Wright’s body was found in a field off Huffine Lane, touching off a months-long investigation. Lebrum was convicted of criminal endangerment in a separate case, after he punched a man in the jaw, breaking his teeth, during a pickup basketball game.

The problem here comes in the third sentence. I’m tempted to say there should be no comma after the word “case,” but that’s not necessarily true. That is a case where the comma is for dramatic purposes. It indicates more of a pause between the fact that Lebrum was convicted and what exactly he did. It’s a completely optional comma — normally.

In this case, however, the awkward combination of the adverbial participial phrase (“breaking his teeth”) followed by another prepositional phrase (“during a pickup basketball game”) means you have too many elements of the sentence that need commas. In this case, it would have been better to opt for no comma after “case” to avoid awkward pauses during reading.

A different wording that eliminates having the participial “breaking” followed by an -ing form preposition would be better. Consider something like: “…Lebrum was convicted of criminal endangerment in a separate case after he punched and broke a man’s jaw during a pickup basketball game” or “Lebrum was convicted of criminal endangerment in a separate case after he broke a man’s jaw in a fistfight that broke out during a pickup basketball game.” Both are wordier, but I think they get the meaning across more clearly.

Next example, from later in the same story:

Avignone also refers to letters submitted by a pastor and philosophy professor with whom Lebrum studied the Bible and philosophy, and who believe Lebrum can become an asset rather than a hindrance to the community.

In this paragraph, we see a comma after “philosophy.” Why? The comma appears meant to close an informational aside, the fact that Lebrum studied the Bible with the pastor and professor. But if we examine the first part of the sentence by itself, we learn that is not throwaway, extra information. Consider what the sentence would be like without it (and without the “who” clause at the end — for now):

“Avignone also refers to letters submitted by a pastor and philosophy professor.”

So what? We need to know why this person referred to the letters, otherwise the sentence feels incomplete. Hence, we must have the Bible clause; hence, it is essential to the sentence and should not be separated by commas.

Now, we must comprehend the final “who” clause, which has been separated from the main clause by that troublesome comma. The problem with this particular clause is that the reporter already used a form of “who” in the relative clause that we’ve just proved essential to the whole sentence: “with whom.” By switching form back to “who” at the end of the sentence, the author ruined the sentence’s potential parallelism and made it harder to understand. Rather than having two clauses that begin similarly with the same relative pronoun or phrase, we have two different meanings that tug at us from both the passive and active voices. The simple solution would be to make this into two sentences.

“Avignone also refers to letters submitted by a pastor and a philosophy professor with whom Lebrum studied the Bible and philosophy. Both of those men believe Lebrum can become an asset rather than a hindrance to the community, Avignone said.”

Okay then. I think that’s enough grammar for one day, although I’m sure more things will catch my eye as I read on.

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