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Sunday, 23 October 2011

Stuart's Daily Word Spot: The comma, and how to use it.

Cover of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Ze...Cover via Amazon
The comma, and how to use it.
Perhaps I should start this piece by determining what a comma actually is: a comma is defined as a punctuation mark that indicates a pause between parts of a sentence, or which separates items in a list or groups of figures, etc. In speech, we pause when there's a natural break in what we're saying, or when we need to isolate the next words from those preceding them in order to make our message clear.
There's a movement toward open punctuation at present, promoting the omission of commas in cases in which they're considered optional. Whilst such an idea may have some merit, writers and editors need to retain commas, and sometimes even insert additional ones, in order to clarify meaning.
Let me give some examples of how important the humble comma can be.

There is, of course, the famous example shown by Lynne Truss in the title of her excellent book, 'Eats shoots and leaves.' and its alternative version, 'Eats, shoots and leaves.'  The two sentences have exactly the same words but the meanings are poles apart. In the first, we have a bald statement that the subject (unstated in this case) lives on a diet of shoots and leaves; a vegetarian, of course. In the second, we have an altogether more dangerous individual who has a meal, then produces and uses a firearm before moving away.

'She sees all the advantages and wonders about how they might make more of these qualities.'

 In this example, the pairing of 'advantages' with 'wonders', which can act as both verb and noun, makes the first part of the sentence sound as though the subject, she, observes all the advantages and wonders. In fact, of course, the writer does not intend the reader to make this connection and the sentence would be much clearer if written thus: 'She sees all the advantages, and wonders about how they might make more of these qualities.'  We now know, with certainty, that 'she' is both observing and speculating.

It is this ability of the comma to remove ambiguity that makes it an essential tool in the writer's armoury.

'You should be grateful for the money and rest.'

Does the writer want his subject to show gratitude for cash and repose? Or does he actually expect gratitude for the money alone and then suggest that his subject take a rest? The sentence can be read to mean either. A comma would clarify the latter: 'You should be grateful for the money, and rest.' This is now clear. As for the former case, a slight restructuring of the sentence will again make the meaning clear: 'You should be grateful for rest and the money.' Again, the meaning is now clear.

'The world contains far too many people using artificial means to produce children and far too many orphans.'

Here we have the slightly sinister suggestion that people are using artificial means to create orphans. Does this mean some people are actively killing parents so that some children will be orphaned? I think the writer means something entirely different: 'The world contains far too many people using artificial means to create children, and far too many orphans.'  Again, this sentence would make more sense and be unambiguous if structured in a better way: 'The world contains far too many orphans, and too many people who use artificial means to create children.' You may, or may not, agree with the sentiment, but I hope you agree with the clarity of the alternative structures.

'Marilyn opened the door in her nightdress and shrieked as the chill air blew it up her legs.'

It's unlikely Marilyn's nightdress had a door, of course. But the writer has described the garment as having one. Also, was the door or the nightdress blown up her legs? Not at all clear, is it? Perhaps a better understanding of what actually happened would be derived from: 'Marilyn, in her nightdress, opened the door and shrieked as the chill air blew it up her legs.' Even here, though it's now clear that the nightdress and the door are two separate items, it remains ambiguous whether the chill air blew the garment or the portal up her legs. It isn't always a lack of commas that renders a sentence unclear. Perhaps it might be better stated as: 'Marilyn opened the door and shrieked as the chill air blew her nightdress up her legs.' Here the comma has been ditched but the structure of the sentence makes everything clear.

'Another politician named Nick Clegg broke his word and allowed his partners to introduce tuition fees against all the pre-election promises he had made.'

How many politicians named 'Nick Clegg' are there? And, in what way can you introduce tuition fees for pre-election promises? The sentence is poor and lacks clarity. Let's try: 'Nick Clegg, another politician, broke his word and allowed his partners to introduce tuition fees, against all the pre-election promises he had made.' We now understand that the writer is lumping Nick Clegg with other politicians and pointing the finger of blame at him, regarding tuition fees, because he had previously promised not to permit such a thing to happen.

 I could go on with examples, and I could talk about the 'Oxford' comma, but I think you've probably got the general idea by now. I don't want to bore you.

23 October 2001 The first iPod was released by Apple. Can it really only be ten years ago?


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