One Comma Creates A Lot Of Fuss - Letter

The Great Debate over whether Richard K. Latimer requires new corrective lenses or Mark J. Cool is in serious need of a remedial reading class takes me back to 1950, the Henry W. Hall School and the then-popular exercise of analyzing sentence structure by diagramming.

The contested sentence: "With respect to Mr. Braga, for example, it is no coincidence that Falmouth’s most vociferous wind turbine opponent, Mark Cool, was seen holding one of his campaign signs recently, with other wind turbine opponents at the Falmouth Post Office this past weekend passing out his campaign literature."   

Mr. Latimer faults Mr. Cool for failing, perhaps ignorantly, perhaps carelessly, but explicitly “hastily,” to observe the effect of the comma after the word “recently” which he, Latimer, asserts obviously functions to render the two observations of the sentence, that Mr. Cool was seen carrying a campaign sign recently and that other wind turbine opponents were observed passing out campaign literature at the post office on the Saturday before the election, “syntactically separated.” Failing to note the importance of this comma, Mr. Cool misinterpreted the prepositional phrase beginning “with other wind turbine opponents” as modifying the verb “was seen.”

I fail to see how Mr. Latimer’s lone sentinel comma can possibly have such syntactical authority. If we were to delete the word “recently” (and the comma), the sentence would simply read, as Mr Cool interpreted, that wind opponent Cool was seen holding a campaign sign with other wind opponents at the post office passing out literature on Saturday.  Including the word “recently” complicates matters because now the prepositional phrase, among other functions, can be viewed as amplifying the adverb “recently” to specify that it was this past weekend, so that the comma seems useful in Mr. Cool’s interpretation, not exclusionary, and his linkage of the prepositional phrase with the proximate verb reasonably commonsensical, especially given the innate ambiguity of this awkward sentence, and defensible.

But, if what Mr. Cool read is not what Mr. Latimer wrote, what did Mr. Latimer write?  If the prepositional phrase in question is not modifying the verb “was seen,” what is it modifying?  Upon careful scrutiny, I can identify only a single candidate, the verb “is” near the beginning of the sentence.

To illustrate this, rearranging the words without changing any of the words, we can come up with: "With respect to Mr. Braga, for example, it is no coincidence, with other wind turbine opponents at the Falmouth Post Office this past weekend passing out his campaign literature, that Falmouth’s most vociferous wind turbine opponent, Mark Cool, was seen holding one of his campaign signs recently."

This rearrangement facilitates visualizing the sentence for diagramming in a way to support the contention that the two observations of the sentence are independent or at least that Mr. Cool is not said to have been seen with the other lot. The rearranged sentence is less ambiguous, but just as awkward, and elucidates the singularly misplaced modifier of the original, the source of its ambiguity.  

Conclusion:  Mr. Cool can skip remedial reading class and Mr. Latimer should resolve not to allow haste to jeopardize his usual enviable communication skills.

Clifford T. O’Connell
Gardiner Road
Woods Hole

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