This week, I saw the following sign: Do Not Litter and Feed the Birds. Both good ideas, but am I supposed to feed them or not feed them? Single subjects and double predicates: what would you do?
Well, it turns out that someone did take pen to that sign and edited it thusly.
Someone added a period after "Do Not Litter" and started a new sentence by adding "Do."
The problem here is a common grammatical issue. When we have one subject and two verbs (a compound predicate), what do we do? Do we use a comma between the verbs in the predicate? Where does the negative word, such as "not" go? Do we use it once or twice?
In this sentence, the "secret," or implied subject is "you," since it's a command. "[You] do not litter . . ." The confusion arises because the negative "not" seems to apply to only the first verb, "litter," and not to the second, "feed." This is a peculiarity of using "and" with a negative in a command; imagine if that word were "or": "Do not litter or feed the birds" is much clearer and less ambiguous.
However, that original sentence is, technically, punctuated correctly. When we have a single subject and two verbs for a compound predicate, both applying to the same subject, we don't use a comma between them. This is so commonly observed in journalism that it's unremarkable, but I've been noticing in fiction that many authors prefer to add a comma, especially if the predicate is long.
But 99% of the time, that's completely unnecessary. One of the best copyedited magazines out there, The Week, scrupulously observes the double verb/no comma rule, and its sentences are models of clarity.
Look at these two excerpts, from the Feb 22 issue:
"protest leaders who began two years ago to use the internet to foment resistance to Hosni Mubarak and continued pushing for change despite imprisonment and torture." [from a review of a Frontline episode, in the Television section].
"I've been onstage and seen people in the front row fall asleep." [auoting Anthony Hopkins from the London Telegraph]
The answer is simple: Do Not Use a Comma with a Compound Predicate and Be Clear.
Also, feed the birds. No ambiguity there!
What is your favorite mispunctuated sign?
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.