Socrates: Wouldn’t you say, Grambon, that some modifiers are absolutely necessary?
Grambon: You mean like white elephant as opposed to just any elephant, big or small or hairy,
as elephants go? The homogenous elephant, the general?
Socrates: Well, yes and no. If I say the big elephant behind you has a trunkful of elephant phleghm…
[Grambon ducks and moves behind Socrates’ robe. Socrates reassures
him there is no elephant, big, white, hairy, nosey–only the idea of an elephant–
and coaxes him out from under his toga.]
Socrates, cont.: I’m thinking more like phrases and clauses. The elephant which is the largest of the pachyderms is sometimes lightly crossed with a peanut butter sandwich.
Socrates: Let me finish: there’s that elephant, with some nonessential info attached to it, the pachyderm business–that information has got nothing to do with the peanut butter part. But, now, compare this elephant:
The elphant which is in the very center of the herd is the sick one.
Now there your modifier that tells you which elephant it is, is essential. Otherwise you’d be aiming your dart gun at the wrong elephant. You want that particular elephant at the center of the herd.
Grambon: Why am I putting this elephant to sleep again?
Socrates: Because you want to cross it with a peanut butter sandwich. This isn’t easy, especially with a bull elephant like the one in the center of the herd. Some elephants don’t even like peanut butter.
Grambon: So to say.
Socrates: Good. You get my point then? If the modifying information is essential to what you want to say in the sentence, then it modifies so tightly that you don’t put pauses around it, you don’t whisper it or toss it off like it was inside some kind of invisible parentheses, and you certainly don’t put commas aound it.
Grambon: Certainly not.
Socrates: BUT, lad, if it’s just extra information, like, elephants mate for life, or elephants cry,
or elephants do such and such but that has no real bearing on the main point of your
sentence… Like: The elephant that you’re putting to sleep, which is by the way my
favorite elephant in the whole herd, has been known to wake up about twice as fast
as is expected from the dosage of pentathol.
that you’re putting to sleep > essential (no commas)
which is by the way my favoriete elephant in the whole herd > non-essential, can
do without it and the main meaning is unaffected; so, set it off (surround it!) with commas
Grambon: I see. The fact that you favor this elephant has nothing to do with the drug or the beast’s
tolerance for it, or even my tolerance for your imperious tone, you old fart!
Socrates: Speak up, lad. These ears aren’t elephant’s.
Grambon: I said I think I’ve got it, but I would love to have a memnonic, some little formula, some
bit of litmus paper that I could hold up to each situation to tell if it’s an essential or a non-
Socrates: Not elephant. Clause! We’re talking clauses here.
Grambon: I didn’t know elephants had claws.
[Socrates gives him a look, but Grambon
still feels he’s one up, for the nonce.]
Socrates: Do the parentheses test.
Grambon: Which is?
Socrates: Here, give me the dart gun and you take these parentheses. Now, approach your sentence
from the left, and if you can slip the parentheses in around the clause in question, then
you know it’s extra information, not essential to the sentence. Then you slip the parentheses
back out and replace them with commas, front and back.
Indian elephants, which by the way I shall tell you this is parenthetical information are famous for their memories,
are characterized by a high, concave foreheard, small ears, and tusks usually present in the
Get it? When you can slip in that by-the-way-I-shall-tell-you and it makes sense, then
you know you’ve got parenthetical, non-essential, non-restrictive, non-tusk-bearing in the
female information, and you surround it with commas.
And when you can say that-particular and that’s the sense you want, then it’s essential
and you don’t use commas. The elephant species which has tusks in both the male and female
is the Elephas africanus.
That information about tusks is part of the main point: the rest of the sentence without
it wouldn’t make much sense: The elephant species is the Elephas africanus. See? The
tusk information restricts the meaning. So what’s it called?
Socrates: What else?
Socrates: How do you test for it?
Grambon: See if that particular fits. And if it does, then no
Socrates: Good. How do you test for the other one?
Grambon: You say… you try to slip in by the way I shall tell you and if it
fits, then you know your info is parenthetical, not essential, and
you set it off with parenthetical-type commas.
Socrates: Good. Now, give me those and put this thing away.
[Grambon somewhat awkwardly returns
the two parentheses to Socrates and receives
the dart gun from him. He stares at it.]
Grambon: This doesn’t have any darts.
Socrates: It was a theoretical elephant, Platonic if you will.
Grambon: What about the peanut butter? Platonic, too?
Socrates: In theory. But sometimes peanut butter is really peanut butter.
Grambon: And a pipe is just a pipe. But what if you cross them?
Socrates: A pipe, with peanut butter?
Grambon: An elephant. What do you get if you cross an elephant with a peanut butter sandwich?
Socrates: I’m not going to fall for that. You’re in the Foruum now.
Grambon: It was your joke!
Socrates: Certainly not. An elephant that always lands jelly-side down or something. Nonsense.
Grambon: Or a peanut butter sandwich thick with elephant phleghm.