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.

sign

 

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.

0 Kudos
About Unabashedly Bookish: The BN Community Blog
Unabashedly Bookish features new articles every day from the Book Clubs staff, guest authors, and friends on hot topics in the world of books, language, writing, and publishing. From trends in the publishing business to updates on genre fiction fan communities, from fun lessons on grammar to reflections on literature in our personal lives, this blog is the best source for your daily dose of all things bookish.

Advertisement

Since 1997, you’ve been coming to BarnesandNoble.com to discuss everything from Stephen King to writing to Harry Potter. You’ve made our site more than a place to discover your next book: you’ve made it a community. But like all things internet, BN.com is growing and changing. We've said goodbye to our community message boards—but that doesn’t mean we won’t still be a place for adventurous readers to connect and discover.

Now, you can explore the most exciting new titles (and remember the classics) at the Barnes & Noble Book Blog. Check out conversations with authors like Jeff VanderMeer and Gary Shteyngart at the B&N Review, and browse write-ups of the best in literary fiction. Come to our Facebook page to weigh in on what it means to be a book nerd. Browse digital deals on the NOOK blog, tweet about books with us,or self-publish your latest novella with NOOK Press. And for those of you looking for support for your NOOK, the NOOK Support Forums will still be here.

We will continue to provide you with books that make you turn pages well past midnight, discover new worlds, and reunite with old friends. And we hope that you’ll continue to tell us how you’re doing, what you’re reading, and what books mean to you.

Categories