Q. A physicists’ society newsletter reported on some portraits by famed physicist and part-time artist Richard Feynman, noting, “The works were acquired by Princeton, where Feynman had been a graduate student, in the mid-eighties.” One reader chided the editors, claiming that the sentence makes Feynman (born 1918) a sixty-plus-year-old graduate student. I feel the comma after “graduate student” sets off the phrase correctly. How do I make my case concisely, or what rule do I cite? Or am I wrong?
A. Bad writing can be technically correct. In this case, citing a punctuation rule to justify the word order can’t save the sentence from its comical implication. Why force readers to analyze the commas in order to ascertain the meaning of a sentence? Good editing smooths the way for the reader. In that light, I’m afraid you are wrong.