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A GRE verbal question:

While historian Linda Nicholson sees women’s participation in voluntary associations as activities consistent with the increasing relegation of women’s lives to a separate, “private” sphere in nineteenth-century Europe, historian Katherine Lynch argues that these kinds of activities enabled women to join with one another and to develop a kind of shadow citizenship within civil society, if not the formal state. These kinds of experiences were no substitute for actual political entitlements, Lynch suggests, but they deserve more attention for their importance in helping individuals forge enduring bonds of community and identity beyond domestic life. Only by limiting one’s notion of public life to formal political participation, she says, can one conclude that most women in Western society have ever been literally consigned to a separate or “private” sphere.

The phrase "These kinds of experiences" in the passage refers to experiences in Lynch's view are

A. an early stage in women's political participation

B. insufficiently appreciated for their role in women's public life

C. properly assigned to the "private" sphere

D. a means of altering the political structure

E. historically atypical for women in Western society

I am confused by the sentence "women’s lives in a separate, 'private' sphere in nineteenth-century Europe." I've been told to always use "and" to connect two parallel words and never use a comma. Based on that, I interpreted it as "women’s lives in a separate" + "'private' sphere in nineteenth-century Europe," which didn't make any sense to me. Is it acceptable to use a comma to join words (clauses)?

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    That comma is separating a string of adjectives, not a clause. It is perfectly acceptable. "Those kinds of experiences" refers to "voluntary associations" and Lynch argues that such volunteering activities are insufficiently appreciated for their role in expanding womens' lives beyond the "private" or "domestic" sphere. Sep 19, 2023 at 1:02

2 Answers 2

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The OP asks about the syntax of the text "relegation of women’s lives to a separate, “private” sphere in nineteenth-century Europe", and in particular the function of the comma between separate and private.

At first glance it seems the comma is equivalent to and: "separate and private sphere". But a closer reading shows that we should understand it differently. The comma has the meaning "in other words", and the writer wants us to read separate and private as the same thing. The separate sphere is the private sphere.

This reading is confirmed by the final words where this phrase is repeated, but the comma is replaced by "or" (not by "and"):

Only by limiting one’s notion of public life to formal political participation, she says, can one conclude that most women in Western society have ever been literally consigned to a separate or “private” sphere.

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The question has a few questions within it.

- In the sentence "women’s lives in a separate, 'private' sphere in nineteenth-century Europe," why does the author connect words with a comma?

It sounds a bit nicer than using "and" when you only have two words. "And" can sound slightly clunky. It's good to vary sentence structure.

- When does one use "and" to connect two parallel words vs. a comma? You could say "separate and private," but the comma works better because separate, "private" has a more complex and interesting connotation. Let's break it down:

"Separate and "private" sphere" has only the conclusion that the sphere is separate and private.

"Separate, “private” sphere" has the connotation that the "private" sphere is separate. That is, sure, we know the sphere is separate, but we are arriving at that conclusion via the modification of the phrase "private sphere" not just "sphere" alone. So whatever this "'private' sphere" thing is, we know it is separate. Do you see how this has slightly different implications than just saying simply that a sphere is both separate "and" private? This isn't always the effect, though. Sometimes, it is obvious that a conjunction is omitted that this connotation doesn't happen.

Note: Peter Kirkpatrick is also correct. It does also have a connotation that we should assume separate and private are close to synonymous. That is, what someone means by "'private'" is really "separate."

- Can it be interpreted as "women’s lives in a separate" + "'private' sphere in nineteenth-century Europe?" Yes. This is functionally what it is doing. The connotation of the comma gives it a little bit of flair and prevents monotony due to boring sentence structure.

- Is it acceptable to use a comma to join words (clauses)? Yes (for word like this sentence), but you should only do it if you're confident. Of course, it is not always acceptable to always do this.

Let's try some examples. Warning: many of these are intended to (correctly) break "rules" or guidelines that are taught when first learning English. I think the proper way to "understand" this is to just read a lot of examples so you get a sense for it. So, I will list a lot of examples:

We can use this technique to be poetic:

The room was spacious, well-lit, and airy. (We use commas and "and.")

The cat, graceful, mysterious, leapt softly. (This is certainly stylized.)

In the forest, dark and alive, he creeps, watching.

The frequencies above, to high, pure, for our hominid ears to perceive, hum distant, eternal secrets to those willing to listen.

The river, relentless, untamed, with its dagger carves canyons.

We can also use this technique to be terse:

His eyes, wide, unblinking, reflected the trees, prey.

(This is an another demonstration of what I mean by the connotation of modifying the phrase and not the noun alone. Unblinking refers to wide eyes, not just eyes.)

Bare, trodden, flat. Only death, dryness marks the territory of Crooked Creek.

To bite deeply into the flesh, without reservation, without tameness, is the most courageous act of culinary excellence.

On the clear, cold window, snowflakes, intricate, fragile, dancing, some quickly, others slow, in the frigid air, compose a symphony of white on the ground. (This is over the top.)

Here are some examples by actual authors (i.e., not me). Some authors love doing this, and do it all the time. Others don't.

There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.

When the situation is hopeless, there’s nothing to worry about. (Different example: this one should be obvious why the comma is there as it connects a dependent clause to an independent clause.)

The earth, like the sun, like the air, belongs to everyone and to no one.

A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles. (You can do both in one sentence: connect with "or," or just use commas alone.)

The longest journey begins with a single step, not with a turn of the ignition key.

A ruler pushes from behind, by means of the club, the whip, the power of fear.

A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself. (This is an example where "and" is omitted. Here, there isn't as much of a sense as the "phrase" modification that I described earlier. Instead, it just creates a style of succinctness and punch.

Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.

To die alone, on rock under sun at the brink of the unknown, like a wolf, like a great bird, seems to me very good fortune indeed. (Omitted "or.")

There is a deep, abiding, unshakable satisfaction in a life of complete failure.

Be loyal to what you love, be true to the earth, fight your enemies with passion and laughter.

- Is A, B, C, D, or E the correct answer?

The sentence is:

While historian Linda Nicholson sees women’s participation in voluntary associations as activities consistent with the increasing relegation of women’s lives to a separate, “private” sphere in nineteenth-century Europe, historian Katherine Lynch argues that these kinds of activities enabled women to join with one another and to develop a kind of shadow citizenship within civil society, if not the formal state.

The phrase "These kinds of experiences" in the passage refers to experiences in Lynch's view are

A. an early stage in women's political participation

B. insufficiently appreciated for their role in women's public life

C. properly assigned to the "private" sphere

D. a means of altering the political structure

E. historically atypical for women in Western society

A: No, though it may be a foundation for political participation, it is certainly not there yet. B: Yes, this is the main claim Lynch makes. C: No. Remember, we are asked about Lynch, who takes the opposite stance. D: Though it may eventually serve as a foundation for altering political structure, this is not what Lynch is arguing in the passage. E: This is not mentioned in the passage at all.

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