Commas, can be useful

If you read the title of this post without cringing and sucking in a mortified gasp of air, you may want to stop reading.

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If, on the other hand, the above photo makes you want to scream and immediately scramble for your red correction pen (and a shotgun), please read on.

As part of the Proofreading and Editing Course I’m currently red-penning my way through, I’ve been reading that wonderful little classic Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. I love the woman. I’ve never met her, but I love her. I am convinced she is my doppelgänger. As many of you will know already, I am a self-confessed Grammar Nazi, and so is she. It’s a match made in Heaven.

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When I read passages like the following, I leap to my feet and yell “Yessss!” like a vindicated madwoman:

“It’s tough being a stickler for punctuation these days. …While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight. We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we see dead punctuation. …When we point out illiterate mistakes we are often aggressively instructed to “get a life” by people who, interestingly, display no evidence of having lives themselves.” (pg. 2)

The book is a rip-snortingly funny call to arms to punctuation pedants the world over. It bemoans the inexorable erosion of the proper use of punctuation and outlines what the aforementioned pedants can do about it. (Take up their red pens and start slashing and burning.)

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Humour aside, it also clearly sets out the rules for proper punctuation usage. For all her dry wit and darkly hilarious observations, Truss knows her stuff, and is obviously a genuine believer:

“The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.” (pg.20)

The book was a runaway success and ended up #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, which gives people like me hope for the future of civilisation.

Truss directs her characters in Eats, Shoots & Leaves like a pro, giving all the well-known punctuation marks their respective turns in the spotlight, but today I am going to usher just one towards centre stage: the comma.

I’m not going to list the rules for proper comma usage; Truss does that perfectly well herself. Instead, with proselytising zeal (and not a little self-righteousness) let me jump straight to what I believe is the most important point in the whole chapter:

“The big final rule for the comma is one you won’t find in any books by grammarians. It is quite easy to remember, however. The rule is: don’t use commas like a stupid person. I mean it.” (pg. 96)

See what I mean? I’m in love.

She goes on to give a number of examples of stupid usage:

Leonora walked on her head, a little higher than usual. (The comma should come after “on”.)

The convict said the judge is mad (which is fine unless you meant “The convict, said the judge, is mad.”)

No dogs please (This needs a comma after “dogs”, or it becomes a generalisation about dogs being unable to please, and we all know that’s a load of bollocks.)

And of course, the first image of this post, which was designed to drive the pedants mad, is a spectacular example of a meaningless platitude made even more meaningless by a redundant comma.

A comma put in the wrong place, or inserted when it shouldn’t be there, or left out when it should be, can have momentous (and frequently hilarious) consequences.

Consider these two sentences:

Well, I’d better go and get on, my lover.

Well, I’d better go and get on my lover.

Just a tiny flick of the pen and suddenly, somebody’s not getting any. The pen is mightier than the sword, people.

And then there’s that jolly splice comma. This is the comma that is recklessly thrown in between two independent clauses when what’s really required is a semicolon (or a colon). For example:

I went to school today, it was fun.

Or:

I am using a splice comma, I am a stupid person.

Truss does note, however, that a “rather unfair rule” emerges with the splice comma: “only do it if you’re famous.” She goes on:

“Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous. Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.” (pg. 88)

Bloody writers. They’re always getting away with something.

And now for the pièce de résistance. Lynne (we’re on first name terms now) recounts the apocryphal tale of a young man playing Duncan in Macbeth, (I hesitated before adding that comma, by the way) who called out cheerfully after the wounded soldier in Act One spoke of the battle: “Go get him, surgeons!”

It’s supposed to be “Go, get him surgeons!”

And so, my fellow Grammar Nazis, I urge you to be intractably pedantic when it comes to using the comma, and unwavering in your intolerance of its incorrect employment. To you I issue the rallying cry of Eats, Shoots & Leaves:

“Sticklers unite, you have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion, and arguably you didn’t have a lot of that to begin with.” (pg. 28)

Ain’t that, the truth.

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2 Comments on “Commas, can be useful”

  1. Aspiring Scribbler February 14, 2014 at 1:26 am #

    I always agonise over my punctuation because I can never remember all the rules. Guess which book just got added to the list for my next trip to the library?

    • belllettres February 14, 2014 at 1:41 am #

      Yep, it’s a goody. 🙂

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