More work on Leonard Peikoff’s Grammar Course.
I went through each problem on my own first and then checked my answer against Peikoff’s. I will mark the problems and their subparts with the following emoji:
– ✅ for correct,
– ❌ for incorrect,
– ✅ ❌ for partially correct,
– ❗️for problems that are particularly interesting,
– 😬 for problems that I was low confidence on when I answered them, and
– 🤔 for problems where I’m not fully satisfied with the answer.
If there’s no emoji in front of my analysis about keeping/adding/not adding/removing some comma, that just means it wasn’t addressed in Peikoff’s discussion.
If I say that Peikoff agrees, that means he agrees with me overall about the main point, and not necessarily that he agrees with every detail of my analysis.
Big picture thought: I think that Peikoff gives lots of names to specific instances of comma usage rather than trying to integrate them under broader principles. Peikoff giving names to lots of specific cases of something is an issue I have noticed throughout the course. On the one hand, I think that having so many names poses crow epistemology issues, because it becomes difficult to remember all the specific names. On the other hand, having very specific reasons for comma usage with their own name does help counter an impulse that I (and I imagine other students) sometimes feel, which is an impulse to use commas based on intuition + a vague justification. So there are pluses and minuses to Peikoff’s approach in this regard.
The instructions for the problems are to:
Add or subtract commas as required.
I will indicate commas added with [,] and commas removed with .
✅ Problem 1
We did not see the women in rags, nor the men in tatters. We do not like to see such careless shoddy apparel in our bright public dining room nor do we feel that all things considered, it is proper.
We did not see the women in rags nor the men in tatters. We do not like to see such careless[,] shoddy apparel in our bright public dining room[,] nor do we feel that[,] all things considered, it is proper.
✅ I struck the comma after “rags” because it’s unnecessary. If you write “I did not eat the donut nor the cake” then I think that you don’t need a comma after “donut”; same idea applies here.
Peikoff: Should not separate compound objects with commas.
✅ I added a comma after “careless” because a comma is appropriate there to separate the adjectives “careless” and “shoddy”.
Peikoff: These are coordinate adjectives.
✅😬 I did not add a comma between “bright” and “public” because I do not think those are actually coordinate adjectives – I think that “public dining room” is more of a single unit and “bright” is qualifying that whole thing. It’d be different if it was something like “our bright, airy dining room”.
✅ I added a comma before the “nor” because “nor” is a coordinating conjunction joining two independent clauses.
✅ I added a comma before “all things considered” because a comma is required to finish setting off this parenthetical/side element. The setting off of this element was only partially accomplished with the comma after “considered.”
✅ Problem 2
The man whom I saw yesterday told me that Jones whom I called last week was out of town; nevertheless I made a list of books which have influenced me greatly. (I always buy Jones’s books which have influenced me greatly.)
The man whom I saw yesterday told me that Jones[,] whom I called last week[,] was out of town; nevertheless[,] I made a list of books which have influenced me greatly. (I always buy Jones’s books[,] which have influenced me greatly.)
✅ I did not add commas around “whom I saw yesterday” because that is essential information for defining “man” and thus a restrictive clause. Without that information, you’re just talking about some man out of context.
✅ I added commas around “whom I called last week” to set off the non-restrictive relative clause.
✅I added a comma after “nevertheless” because it modifies the whole clause that follows and thus needs a comma.
✅ I added a comma before the “which have influenced me greatly” in the parenthetical sentence at the end to set off the non-restrictive relative clause. IMHO, the speaker doesn’t intend to talk about a subset of Jones’s books — as in, 5 out of 10 of Jones’s books, the ones which influenced the speaker greatly — but rather, intends to include all of Jones’s books within the category of books that have influenced them greatly.
❌ Problem 3
That officer down the block has, in hardly a single case, given speeders a ticket.
That officer down the block has, in hardly a single case, given speeders a ticket.
I did not add commas around “down the block” because it is short and thus unnecessary. (Peikoff didn’t address this)
❌ I kept commas around “in hardly a single case” to indicate we’ve inserted an element into the main structure of a core grammatical element (namely, we are breaking up the verb phrase “has … given”)
Peikoff: You remove the commas around “in hardly a single case.” Negative Adverb rule. Commas make it too parenthetical but we want the phrase to not be parenthetical because we want it to negate the essence of the sentence.
Analysis After Listening to Peikoff: Ah okay. I’m not sure I quite understood this point in the lecture but I think I do now. The issue is similar to restrictive versus non-restrictive, in that the “in hardly a single case” is really essential to the meaning of the sentence, and so we don’t want to set it off with commas. Without that phrase the sentence is “That officer down the block has … given speeders a ticket”, which has an entirely different meaning. The point I raised re: inserting something into the main structure of the grammar would be relevant in another context, but here the meaning issue takes precedence.
✅❌ Problem 4
Another of the changes suggested by the board, is the suspension of final exams. A student, it seems, should not have to work, when he reaches his senior year.
Another of the changes suggested by the board is the suspension of final exams. A student, it seems, should not have to work when he reaches his senior year.
✅ I struck the comma after “by the board”. There is no reason for a comma there. If we have a comma there, it sounds like we’re talking about different sets of changes – some suggested by the board, others suggested by some other people – and we want to specify that we’re talking about the changes suggested by the board right now. I don’t think that is the intent though.
Peikoff: Putting a comma here would improperly separate the subject and the verb.
✅ I kept the commas around “it seems” because that is a parenthetical remark or brief description of mental state or something like that, and so having commas around it makes sense.
✅❌ (I got the answer right re: comma placement but had significantly different reasoning than Peikoff) I struck the comma after “should not have to work” because “when he reaches his senior year” is essential information as to the meaning and thus restrictive.
Peikoff: The correct reasoning here is that an adverbial clause at the end of a sentence does not require a comma unless it is a special situation of emphasis.
Thought After Listening to Peikoff: I think Peikoff’s explanation makes more sense than mine.
✅❌😬 Problem 5
They brought our meals which, whether hot or cold, sweet or spicy, made of tomatoes imported from France or baked with cheese flown directly from Italy, we ate uncomplainingly all day long and into the night.
Here is a simpler sentence that is similar: ** They brought our meals, which, whether hot, sweet, saucy or cheesy, we ate happily at once.”
There is a comma before “which” in this simpler version. Otherwise the punctuation tracks the more complicated one.
The basic grammar of the actual problem is “They brought our meals, which … we ate …”. So a main clause followed by a relative clause. And the stuff in between is just items in a series.
They brought our meals[,] which, whether hot or cold, sweet or spicy, made of tomatoes imported from France or baked with cheese flown directly from Italy, we ate uncomplainingly all day long and into the night.
✅ I added a comma before “which” to set off the whole “which” expression.
Peikoff: Without the comma, it sounds like there are two sets of meals: the meals where hot or cold, sweet or spicy etc., and those which aren’t. That’s not what is intended here though.
The core of the non-restrictive clause is “which … we ate uncomplainingly.”
✅❌ I did not add a comma after “France” because I am following Peikoff’s approach to Oxford commas and did not believe a comma was necessary there for clarity.
Peikoff: Argues that “made of tomatoes imported from France or baked with cheese flown directly from Italy” is a single unit.
Analysis After Listening to Peikoff:I don’t think I understood this initially. A student in Peikoff’s class argued for a comma after “France”, which is something I rejected. But my reasoning was that such a comma was unnecessary for clarity and that I wasn’t doing Oxford commas for purposes of this exercise, as opposed to the reasoning that such a comma would improperly break up a single unit. Peikoff also claims, quite questionably, that misreading the structure here is impossible. I say “questionably” because both me and one of his students misread the structure here. I think the use of two short sets of “x or y” creates a reader expectation as to what the length of the units is going to be in the sentence, and then that gets violated by throwing in a super long one at the end. So the expression might be decent as a grammar-testing exercise but would maybe be bad as actual writing.
Peikoff: Says it would better to use dashes to set off the big aside/parenthetical thing. Because the long aside itself has multiple subparts, we want to indicate where the aside begins and ends.
They brought our meals which – whether hot or cold, sweet or spicy, made of tomatoes imported from France or baked with cheese flown directly from Italy – we ate uncomplainingly all day long and into the night.
❌😬🤔 Problem 6
I loved the smooth grey of the beech stem, the silky texture of the birch and the rugged pine. (F)
I suspect I’m gonna miss something here and get this question wrong but I don’t see any places where I’d want to add a comma.
It seems like we’re talking about aspects of trees, and the person says:
“I loved the X, the Y and the Z.”
No comma is needed after “smooth” because “grey” is actually being used as a noun here.
The comma after “beech stem” seems fine as marking the first in a series of 3 items.
❌ No oxford comma (after “of the birch”) is present, and those are optional anyways, and omitting it is consistent with Peikoff’s preference, so that is fine.
Peikoff: Without a comma here, it makes it sound like the silky texture goes with the birch and the pine.
🤔Analysis: It’s possible that I’m just really primed towards reading this sentence a certain way but I am having trouble seeing the reading that Peikoff suggests. I can see that there is a pattern break with “the rugged pine”, though, wherein the first two items in the series were followed by prepositional phrases and this one was not, and so that could confuse reader expectations somewhat.
✅ Problem 7
Walking towards the building, I saw her confiding to her lover what, she thought, the truth was.
Walking towards the building, I saw her confiding to her lover what she thought the truth was.
I left the comma after “Walking towards the building”, which is fine as indicating a participial phrase.
✅ I struck the commas around “she thought” as unnecessary. They are unneeded for that sort of aside about mental state.
✅🤔 Problem 8
To begin with my uncle had an annoying habit: while he was cooking his dog always jumped onto the table.
To begin with[,] my uncle had an annoying habit: while he was cooking[,] his dog always jumped onto the table.
✅ I added a comma after “To begin with.” While “To begin with” is short, you still want a comma there or else there is a tendency to just take the whole thing “To begin with my uncle” as a unit, and so then it sounds like you’re saying you’re beginning with the uncle and then you’ll move onto the aunt and maybe the cousins next or something. I don’t think that’s the intent though. So this is a “preventing misreading” comma.
✅🤔 I added a comma after “while he was cooking”. I’m not sure Peikoff actually expressly addressed this in his presentation, or if it would be covered by some other principle, but “subordinate clauses” appearing before a main clause get a comma to separate them from the main clause.
Peikoff: Points out that if you don’t use a comma here, it makes it sound like the man was cooking his dog.
I’m giving myself credit for this point because I think Peikoff’s argument is an additional argument for the comma, and not one that is mutually exclusive with what I said. Unclear if Peikoff thinks “subordinate clause” appearing before a main clause is a sufficient reason for a comma.
BTW the sentence is misconceived. Annoyances caused by the dog may be the uncle’s responsibility, but they are not a habit of the uncle.
✅ Problem 9
By the time he had reached sixty years of age on the other hand, such memories, although still recurrent, and disturbing, had become, increasingly, infrequent.
By the time he had reached sixty years of age[,] on the other hand, such memories, although still recurrent and disturbing, had become increasingly infrequent.
✅ I added a comma after “sixty years of age” because “on the other hand” is a parenthetical element appearing in the middle of the sentence. The grouping as written, with only a comma after “on the other hand” but not before, would indicate that the time under discussion was the on-the-other-hand time he reached sixty years of age, as opposed to the other times he reached sixty years of age (?!), which is nonsense.
Peikoff: Peikoff says “on the other hand” is a sentence modifier.
✅ I struck the comma after “still recurrent” because “recurrent and disturbing” are equal elements being conjoined by “and” and so no comma is necessary.
✅ I struck the commas after “had become” and “increasingly” because I saw no argument that they were necessary. “Increasingly” is not some kind of clause modifier or something that needs to be set off on its own.
Peikoff: Sentence is already comma-heavy, don’t wanna overdo the commas.
✅ Problem 10
Going to a top-rated Ivy League college was a hideous brain-corroding psychological experience but it taught me, and my friends, a good lesson.
(😟 at content)
Going to a top-rated Ivy League college was a hideous[,] brain-corroding psychological experience[,] but it taught me and my friends a good lesson.
✅ I added a comma after “hideous” cuz “hideous” and “brain-corroding” are coordinate adjectives modifying “psychological experience.”
✅ I added a comma before the “but” to separate the clauses.
✅ I struck the commas setting off “and my friends.” The “friends” is just another object of the “taught” along with “me” and is conjoined to the “me” by “and”, so no commas are needed.
❗️Peikoff mentions an optional comma that would change the meaning. If you put a comma after “top-rated” you would be talking about a college that is top-rated and Ivy League. With no comma, as written, you indicate that you are discussing the top-rated type of Ivy League colleges (e.g. Harvard/Yale) as apart from the other ones.
Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Main Street, never used the sentence, “A stitch in time saves nine.”
Sinclair Lewis’s novel Main Street never used the sentence, “A stitch in time saves nine.”
✅ I struck the commas around “Main Street.” The name of the novel under discussion is essential information, so we want a restrictive appositive here.
❌❗️ I did not strike the comma after “sentence.” I’m used to setting off direct quotations with commas.
Peikoff: The comma after “sentence” should be struck for the same reason as the commas around “Main Street”: the “A stitch in time saves nine.” sentence is a restrictive appositive providing essential detail about “sentence.”
Analysis After Listening to Peikoff: Peikoff’s reasoning makes sense to me. Also, what we’re talking about actually isn’t a quote because we’re saying the sentence didn’t appear so that means it’s not in the novel.
✅ Problem 12
The president is so tired when he gets home, that he falls asleep immediately. At least he is more polished, more intellectual than his predecessor.
The president is so tired when he gets home that he falls asleep immediately. At least he is more polished, more intellectual[,] than his predecessor.
✅I struck the comma after “home.” “that he falls asleep immediately” is a restrictive clause and therefore should not be offset with a comma – it tells us the result of the president being so tired. Without that clause, the sentence is just generally about the president’s exhaustion, and not about the relationship between the exhaustion and the sleeping, and I think that talking about that relationship was the intent. It also uses “that” which is another indicator that this is a restrictive clause.
✅ I added a comma after “more intellectual.” The second sentence is a linking verb sentence. “polished” and “intellectual” are both adjectives linked to “he” through “is”. We need a comma because they’re coordinate elements and there is no conjunction between them. We wouldn’t need a comma if it was “At least he is more polished and more intellectual…” but that’s not the sentence we have, so we need a comma.
Peikoff: Says this is “confluence.” Two expressions running into the same point (“polished” and “intellectual” both going with the “than” that follows.)
✅❌ Problem 13
Like a spoiled, disillusioned child, who had expected predigested capsules of automatic knowledge, a logical positivist stamps his foot at reality . . . .
Like a spoiled, disillusioned child who had expected predigested capsules of automatic knowledge, a logical positivist stamps his foot at reality . . . .
✅❌ I struck the comma after “child.” the “who had expected predigested capsules of automatic knowledge” is essential for naming what kind of child we are talking about, so it’s restrictive.
Marking this as partially correct cuz I only chose one of two acceptable variations and cuz my reasoning was unclear.
I left the comma between “spoiled” and “disillusioned”. This is an appropriate coordinate comma.
Peikoff: Says whether you keep the comma or not depends on the shade of meaning you want to indicate.
If you want to indicate that there are two types of disillusioned children – one type who expects predigested capsules of automatic knowledge, and another type that doesn’t – then you strike the comma.
If you want to indicate that there is only one type of disillusioned child – the type that expects capsules of automatic knowledge – then you keep the comma.
Peikoff says this is a Rand sentence (looks like ITOE Chapter 7), and guesses that since Rand was using an analogy she thought it’d be overprecise to distinguish between two types of disillusioned child, so she kept the comma. Peikoff says the main point with this problem is to indicate the esoteric issues and nuances you can get into with comma stuff.