The commatoform disorder

Punctuation, the comma, the dash, and other such characters, are to make the written matter clear. There is some logic to it, yet language is not a system, and there are no rules that would universally, objectively, and always apply. We need own common sense, or our body of text may become to exhibit a “commatoform” ailment, where “somatoform” is a regular word of everyday language to mean something of a bodily character, ■soma and ■form together.

Common sense usually works fine, yet Polish language has been granted a canon for punctuation by a state regulator, the ■Polish Language Council. Therefore, decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that as translator of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography I declare the causes, and let facts be submitted to a candid world, on my Polish orthography.

In styles less elevated than that of the Declaration of Independence, where stating the causes deserves every bit of punctuation, the Polish comma in everyday language becomes to exhibit a distortion that specialist and general public alike name and tag „przecinkoza”, a would-be “commatosis” in English. The matter is not the translator’s whim.

■This text is also available in Polish.

The new Polish canon does, more or less, for US civics or texts as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. The two types of written matter have this thing of style in common: they drive a point. One is legislation, the other is a political pamphlet.

However, “one does not dress for private company as for a publick ball”; Benjamin Franklin begins his memoir with an address to his son, and translation cannot style the language as for a constitutional article, or a treatise for political rationale.

The new Polish canon imposes a list of words generally to use with the comma. The line is as with the much rumored “government over souls”: you do not need to think sense; memorize the words and always put the comma before them. In practice, discernment between defining and non-defining clauses is lost, and the Polish comma becomes lexemic, that is, dependent on word shape, which I show below.

Things were not always such with the Polish language, and there are no natural languages with lexemic punctuation; Polish would be the only such in the world, but then, how natural?

■PWN, Words to have the comma before them

Between “such matter” and “this matter” — all languages do tell. Let us compare the new Polish canon for the US Constitution:
Sporządzą oni listę wszystkich osób, na które głosowano
To translate back,
They shall make a list of all the persons, who were voted for

The original yet is,
They shall make a list of all the persons voted for
Sporządzą oni listę wszystkich osób na które głosowano
However, all Polish spellcheckers are going to mark the word który (która, które) without the comma as a punctuation error.

According to the new canon,
all the persons voted for
as well as
all the persons, who were voted for
would translate the same, into
wszystkie osoby, na które głosowano, with the comma.
The defining and non-defining logical capacity in the language is lost.

The Polish would look deficient right at the beginning of Benjamin Franklin’s memoir:
“That felicity, when I reflected on it, has induced me sometimes to say, that were it offered to my choice, I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some faults of the first.”

To translate, jak przy drugiej edycji książki, która daje poprawić (with the comma), backtranslation would render the second edition; hence,
“Poczucie osobistego szczęścia, jak je brałem na rozum, sprawiło czasem że powiedziałem, jak by mi dano wybór, nie wahałbym się i miał takiego samego życia powtórkę, od początku, prosząc jedynie o tą autorską korzyść jak przy drugiej edycji książki co daje poprawić pewne wady pierwszej.

The items “który” and “co” are in contexts as here semantically and syntactically equivalent. The new canon for Polish yet would always require the comma before the word shape “który”, fortunately to allow some breathing space with the item “co”, the regulation to be all plain lexemic.

It is not improvement, always to require punctuation before “który”. Life would be synonymous with pain. In English, items “that” and “which” belong with words to mark semantic scopes. Here, the item “which” refers to the clause before the comma.
“My belief of this induces me to hope, though I must not presume, that the same goodness will still be exercised toward me, in continuing that happiness, or enabling me to bear a fatal reverse, which I may experience as others have done…”

In Polish, if we always have a comma, there is no difference if “który” embraces the preceding clause, or has the fatal reverse for a natural course of things. My dislike for pain has brought the inflected lexeme co:
“Wiara ta skłania mnie do nadziei, choć mi z góry zakładać nie wolno, iż to samo dobro dalej będzie moim udziałem, bądź szczęście nadal przynosząc, bądź dając siłę przy jakiejś fatalnej zmianie, czego może przyjść mi zaznawać, jak już innym ludziom bywało…”

In natural languages, it is important to view reference semantically, and not only as some “syntactic surface”. We may compare questions as, Do you mind if I come in? The person answers, Sure, and the meaning is not to hold the guest at the door; he or she sure may enter.

Within a semantic scope, the comma can be for highlight or emphasis, as in the letter from Abel James:
MY DEAR AND HONORED FRIEND: I have often been desirous of writing to thee, but could not be reconciled to the thought, that

The new Polish cannon forces lexemic compensation. For emphasis as above, we need to add a word:
“MÓJ DROGI I SZANOWNY PRZYJACIELU, często przychodziła mi przemożna chęć do Ciebie napisać, ale nie potrafiłem się pogodzić nawet z myślą, iż

Polish items “że” or “żeby” are in the PWN list too. In English, the corresponding structure often would have the item that or to, rendering as,
That felicity, when I reflected on it, has induced me sometimes, to say, that

That felicity, when I reflected on it, has induced me sometimes to say, that were it offered to my choice, I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning…

Poczucie osobistego szczęścia, jak je brałem na rozum, sprawiło czasem że powiedziałem, jak by mi dano wybór, nie wahałbym się i miał takiego samego życia powtórkę, od początku…

Spellcheckers will show the translation as missing a comma. They will want, Poczucie osobistego szczęścia, jak je brałem na rozum, sprawiło czasem, że powiedziałem, — the named and tagged “commatosis”, that is.

Benjamin Franklin’s comma after the verb phrase to say continues to emphasize that the thing is in just saying so, because nobody gets to live twice. With the canon for Polish, all phrases as to say that would require a comma, to say, that. All would be just saying so, or an unrealistic expectation: the highlight role of the comma is lost, because there is always to be a comma.

Well, natural languages are also spoken, and commas obviously are not to regulate the breath. Their sounding is in sentence stress and intonation. Spoken Polish has markers clear enough, for words as “że” or “żeby”, and sentence structure. Phrases as powiedziałem (powiedziałam) że | I said that — are the same as in Polish and English, for intonation; they do not have the spoken mark for the comma, unless we want to emphasize or highlight speaking itself. The matter is the same with words for thought and feeling.

Let us compare spoken English. A person might say,
They propose to establish a corporate supervisor
The new Polish written canon would have commas to separate verbs. To take the words to note, we would be to write:
They propose, to establish a corporate supervisor

Joke emoticon

Language logic will be of effect for defining and non-defining abilities of human syntax. With other regards, punctuation may differ. The Spanish have their exclamation mark “upside down”, or it is the rest of the world to have gone “topsy-turvy”? Embedded discourse may vary in notation too. A few places below, the spellchecker would require more commas, but I do not see any reason to insert them.

Thus refreshed, I walked again up the street, which by this time had many clean-dressed people in it, who were all walking the same way. I joined them, and thereby was led into the great meeting house of the Quakers near the market. I sat down among them, and, after looking round awhile and hearing nothing said, being very drowsy thro labor and want of rest the preceding night, I fell fast asleep, and continued so till the meeting broke up, when one was kind enough to rouse me. This was, therefore, the first house I was in, or slept in, in Philadelphia.

Walking down again toward the river, and, looking in the faces of people, I met a young Quaker man, whose countenance I lik’d, and, accosting him, requested he would tell me where a stranger could get lodging. We were then near the sign of the Three Mariners. “Here,” says he, “is one place that entertains strangers, but it is not a reputable house; if thee wilt walk with me, I’ll show thee a better. He brought me to the Crooked Billet in Water-street. Here I got a dinner; and, while I was eating it, several sly questions were asked me, as it seemed to be suspected from my youth and appearance, that I might be some runaway.

Posilony, poszedłem znów w górę ulicy, a na tej zdążyło się pojawić wielu schludnie ubranych ludzi, wszyscy idąc w jedną stronę; dołączyłem do nich i tak oto przywiedziono mnie do wielkiego domu spotkań kwakrów, przy rynku. Usiadłem pomiędzy nimi, porozglądałem się przez chwilę, a że nikt nic nie mówił i byłem bardzo śpiący po wysiłku poprzedniej nocy, mocno zasnąłem i spałem tak aż do końca spotkania, kiedy to ktoś był na tyle uprzejmy, żeby mnie obudzić. Takoż był to pierwszy dom gdzie byłem czy spałem, w Filadelfii.

Idąc znów w stronę rzeki i przyglądając się ludzkim twarzom, napotkałem na młodego kwakra i jego wygląd mi się spodobał, stąd zagadałem do niego i zapytałem, gdzie przyjezdny mógłby znaleźć kwaterę. Byliśmy wtedy blisko szyldu Trzech Marynarzy. „Tutaj”, powiedział, „przyjmują obcych, ale miejsce to nie ma dobrej reputacji; o ile się pan zgodzi ze mną trochę przejść, pokażę panu lepsze”. Zaprowadził mnie do Garbatej Gospody na ulicy Wodnej. Dostałem tam obiad. Kiedy jadłem, zadano mi parę podchwytliwych pytań, podejrzewając najwyraźniej po moim młodym wieku i wyglądzie, że mogłem być zbiegiem.

Keimer made verses too, but very indifferently. He could not be said to write them, for his manner was to compose them in the types directly out of his head; so there being no copy, but one pair of cases, and the Elegy likely to require all the letter, no one could help him.

Keimer też układał wiersze, ale niedbale. Nie dało się powiedzieć że je pisał, bo jego sposobem było układać czcionki od razu, z głowy; ponieważ nie było kopii, a tylko jedna para dużych i małych liter, i dało się spodziewać, że Elegia będzie wymagać ich wszystkich, nie było jak mu pomóc.

Defining and non-defining capacities in language are required in primary schools, in English-speaking countries. The requirement is reasonable, so there is no persuading me the thing would be too difficult for Polish.

Feel welcome to my translation of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, page for page from the original manuscript as available from Huntington in separate sheets, and from ■→my Internet Archive account as a PDF book. I believe Polish clarity and style do not suffer, and there is no need to insert any more commas. See for yourselves, ladies and gentlemen.

(I’ve been migrating my content and reformatting it with Affinity, for better looks. I hope to make it all available soon).

PDF sample pages 1-70


I translate the singular gentleman as dżentelman, and gentlemen as dżentelmani, regular Polish plural, though the new canon would have dżentelmen for the singular, and dżentelmeni for the plural. Assimilation into dżentelmen might carry odd impressions of plurality. When I was in England, it happened the British advertised, “One each”, to say the least.

Joke emoticon

The new canon advises the Polish item rather than (a feminine determiner to compare with the English this), which I consider a matter of vogue (nothing much, for things that last). Phonological approximation can resolve as tę rękę, tą książkę, and this is the pattern I follow.

I translate Junto as Ramię w Ramię (shoulder to shoulder), as junto is a word of English, but it is not a word of Polish, where there only are the junta or hunta, words for a military regime.

The translation has one occurrence of the variant form podeszłem: most frequently marked as “error” in prescriptivist opinion, Polish allows the form podejść for progression or approach in contexts psychological or generally open, new. Podszedem is literally just footsteps, and Benjamin Franklin was exploring the new place.

The masculine variant esz has been rejected as deriving from historically a feminine stem, but the Polish masculine plural (podeszli) has the stem, as there are no “feminine verbs” generally in Polish.

Masculine third-person singular, podszedł or poszedł, always has sze in the stem, but this would make a ■→theory of the third man in Polish conjugation. There is no natural principle for the grammatical third person to govern the first.

Joke emoticon

On the other hand, Polish has variants as patrzeć or patrzyć, where both shapes are considered correct, regardless of grammatical gender.