English English language Etymology Grammar Punctuation Style Usage Word origin

The comma in question

Q: I am editing a document that contains the following sentence: “The problem is, how do we properly make sense of it all and use it to our benefit?” My issue is the propriety of the comma. My first inclination is to rewrite the sentence, but I am having a hard time determining exactly what is improper about the original usage. What do you think?

A: You’re right in thinking that we don’t normally use a comma to separate a verb like “is” from its object. But when the object is a direct question, it’s usually preceded by a comma and followed by a question mark.

We’ve touched on this subject before on our blog, including postings in 2010 and 2008. This is an issue of style, rather than grammar or usage.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) says a direct question like the one in your example “is usually introduced by a comma” unless it comes at the beginning of a sentence.

The Chicago Manual, which is widely used in the publishing industry, adds that such an interior question “may take an initial capital letter if it is relatively long or has internal punctuation.”

The style guide gives several examples, including this one: “The question on everyone’s mind was, how are we going to tell her?” Your sentence (“The problem is, how …”) is a parallel example. 

The Chicago Manual says an alternative is to rephrase and use an indirect question, as in “The question of how to tell her was on everyone’s mind.”

You didn’t ask about this, but a related issue is whether to use quotation marks to describe thoughts or questions that aren’t actually spoken.

“Thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference,” Chicago says. The style guide gives these two examples:

“I don’t care if we have offended Morgenstern,” thought Vera. “Besides,” she told herself, “they’re all fools.”

Why, we wondered, did we choose this route?

By the way, we noted in a posting last year that the word “comma” referred to a small piece of a sentence when it entered English in the late 16th century, but it soon came to mean the punctuation mark at the end of the piece.

Although English adopted the word from the Latin comma, it’s ultimately derived from the Greek komma (literally, a piece cut off), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto adds that the Greek verb koptein (to cut) gave Russians the word kopeck and probably gave English the word “capon.”

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