The English comma

Translation sheds a unique light on your native tongue. Since working as a translator I have developed a dramatically new appreciation for proper comma placement in English, for in contrast to the fixed comma placement rules of German, there are a variety of contexts in which inserting a comma in English is a matter of taste and personal preference, rather than a grammatical necessity. While English native speakers intuitively understand that the comma can be optional depending on the context, this insight often escapes German natives, who can quickly become uncertain when attempting to write in English or review English language texts, for a highly developed sense of style is prerequisite for the skillful placement of the English comma, rather than knowledge of a formalized set of rules (or “normative order”, as the Germans might say). I had given little thought to this point of difference between German and English until an old customer of mine complained about inconsistency in my translations when it came to sentences that opened with subordinate clauses like “As part of their activities, the researchers […]” or “Within the department, the researchers […].” Of course, in both of these instances the comma is optional and its use in any one case depends in part on the sentence that came previously and the words that follow – that is, on style, and on the proper and natural rhythms of a good English sentence. Of course, English speakers lack a quasi-governmental authority like the “Council for German Orthography” that renders sweeping and binding judgments about the proper usage of the language; I assume the lack of a firm consensus in the English-speaking world on a variety of usage issues strikes many Germans as characteristic of the unsystematic and haphazard nature of the Anglo mindset when it comes to organizational matters. The Germans have a point. Structure is a source of strength. And yet too much order becomes its own weakness, much like a tree branch which, unable to bend in the wind, snaps. How much of German history could be fruitfully interpreted through this lens?

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