Thursday, March 7, 2013

David Foster Wallace sometimes didn’t know what he was talking about

From a David Foster Wallace Fall 2002 class handout now online, Your Liberal-Arts $ at Work:

For a compound sentence to require a comma plus a conjunction, both its constituent clauses must be independent. An independent clause (a) has both a subject and a main verb, and (b) expresses a complete thought. In a sentence like “He ate all the food, and went back for more,” you don’t need both the comma and the and because the second clause isn’t independent.
One mistake: the sentence “An independent clause (a) has both a subject and a main verb, and (b) expresses a complete thought” should not have a comma: it has only one clause.

A second mistake: “He ate all the food and went back for more” is a single independent clause, not two clauses. Notice that the sentence explaining an independent clause and the sample sentence follow the same pattern: subject-verb-and-verb. Neither sentence needs a comma.

But there’s more. Look carefully at the third sentence:
In a sentence like “He ate all the food, and went back for more,” you don’t need both the comma and the and because the second clause isn’t independent.
That sentence needs a comma before because, for the very reason that Wallace explains later in the handout:
[B]ecause is a funny word, and sometimes you’ll need a comma before its appearance in the second clause in order to keep your sentence from giving the wrong impression.
Look again:
In a sentence like “He ate all the food, and went back for more,” you don’t need both the comma and the and because the second clause isn’t independent.

In a sentence like “He ate all the food, and went back for more,” you don’t need both the comma and the and [,] because the second clause isn’t independent.
The first version misleads by suggesting that you don’t need both the comma and and for some other reason.

There’s a fourth mistake in passing: afterwards and backwards are not prepositions. And I suspect that Wallace’s observations about a sentence being “nonstandard in the abstract” would set linguists howling.

Pedantry is always tiresome, but it’s especially tiresome when the pedant doesn’t know what he is talking about. I’m reminded of the poet Ted Berrigan’s comment about another Dave, a friend:
“Dave knows just enough to get himself in trouble. . . . He says her name is pronounced Gertrude SCHTEIN because that’s the way German is pronounced. He also thinks that Byron’s poem is called DON WHAN, because he speaks Spanish and that’s the way the name is pronounced in Spanish. When I told him it’s JEWUN, he told me I was a moron.”

Ron Padgett, Ted: A Personal Memoir of Ted Berrigan (1993)

[“Your Liberal-Arts $ at Work.” Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Click for a larger view.]

Related reading
All David Foster Wallace posts (Pinboard)
E. B. White on W3 (with DFW on Webster’s Third)
How to punctuate a sentence
How to punctuate more sentences

comments: 8

mwschmeer said...

I would argue you are mistaken about the nature of the first mistake. Wallace has written is a list containing two items and he has chosen to separate the items in the list with the oxford comma (, and), which is only necessary proceeding the last item in a list of three or more items.

Michael Leddy said...

I agree that the mistake looks like a matter of a comma separating two items. If I saw the sentence out of context, I’d see it in just that way. I chose to describe it in terms of clauses because of what Wallace wrote in the sentence that follows: “In a sentence like ‘He ate all the food, and went back for more,’ you don’t need both the comma and the and because the second clause isn’t independent.” For some reason he sees “and went back for more” as a clause and not as part of a compound predicate.

Carl Heppenstall said...

The people who taught me grammar would say that you are wrong on all four points. I'll side with DFW.

Michael Leddy said...

If that’s the case, then they, like Rick in Casablanca, were misinformed. A suggestion: rather than taking sides, look up the words afterwards and backwards, read up on what counts as an independent clause, and check the conventions of punctuation as given in any handbook.

Adair said...

I can live with calling Gertrude Stein Shtein, and I too would roll my eyes at an American trying to Germanize it. But I must say that calling Don Juan don jewun is indeed hard for anyone who speaks Spanish. It hurts. I once had a professor who called Don Quixote don quickset.

Michael Leddy said...

“Jewun” grates on me too. Then there’s the Strauss piece with the “quickset” pronunciation, which made me a little crazy when I became aware of it.

Adair said...

Oops. I meant: I can live with calling Gertrude Stein Stein instead of Shtein, which must have been its original pronunciation. It would be very pedantic to insist on Shtein. She was from Bal'more, for Pete's sake. Now, I never got why some people insist on Leonard Bernsteen, when it really should be stein. Or those who say Frankensteen.

Michael Leddy said...

I knew what you meant about Stein. (What is it about comments that brings out glitches? I make them often.)

And yes, the name Frankenstein has been the subject of debate.